A Contemporary Novel of Adventure and Revelation

      As Blaine approached the broken craft, his eyes searched frantically for evidence of survivors. He saw no quickly constructed shelter, no baggage or clothing about, no movement. Then he smelled something, a familiar odor. The distinctive scent of damp ashes, swept along by the wind, led him to the charred remains of a campfire in the southern edge of the meadow. The tall grass that encircled the gray mass was trampled flat.
      From the sizeable area of flattened grass, he guessed that more than one had survived. Frantically, he again scanned the area, but there was no one. They must have left the crash site, seeking food and help, but when and where had they gone? A quick stirring of the ashes exposed a still-warm ground.
      Riding from the recently used campsite toward the body of the plane, Blaine noticed that the fin, sitting high on the tail section, remained upright, the rudder undamaged. The stabilizers were both destroyed, one torn off and missing.
      The fuselage showed long scrapes, tears, and dents, but no caved-in or punctured area. Much of the wing covering was gone, exposing its bent and twisted interior structure. The far wing had four or five feet of its end clipped off. The tires were flat but remained on their wheels. He did not smell leaked fuel.
      Anxiously, he nudged his heels into the flanks of his horse and eased farther up the fuselage, skirting around the badly damaged left wing to look inside the passenger area. Through the ragged-edged opening, to his surprise, he saw a man partially reclined in one of the seats, sitting motionless, his head slumped toward his right shoulder, his hands hanging over the armrests, limp and dangling.
      He wore a brown leather coat, heavy blue slacks, and black, ankle-high boots. The right pants leg was ripped open to his knee and flapped quietly in the breeze; the leg, swollen and purplish-blue, protruded through the torn material; an ugly laceration ran jaggedly from just below his knee down the length of his shin. The wound was partially covered with a stained white cloth.
      Moving closer, Blaine could make out the outline of a young girl lying across a bench-type seat at the back of the compartment. She, too, was motionless, but with relief Blaine detected no evidence of injury. Between the two silent figures stood two rows of seats, all empty.
      Blaine quietly urged his horses up to the cockpit. As expected, it showed severe damage. A large, broken limb was rammed through the opening where the windshield had once been, and the pilot-side exterior was folded around a sturdy ponderosa pine that was jammed against the pilot's seat. The interior was cluttered and unoccupied.
      Blaine turned his horses and hurried back to the passenger section where he dismounted. Anxiously, he called out. "Hello, are you okay?"
      The man's eyes shot open, and he jerked his head upright, groaning in pain as he struggled to raise himself from the reclined seatback. The girl slowly sat up, eyes wide and staring, trying to comprehend. Neither spoke, appearing stunned as if looking at a ghost.
      "Sir, is your leg broken?" Blaine asked.
      "Yeah, my leg's busted bad, maybe crushed," the unshaven man replied. "I've got damaged ribs, too. Who are you?"
      "I'm Blaine Wells." He shifted his eyes to the girl. "Young lady, how about you? Do you have injuries?"
      She stood as though to move forward, but did not. Blaine guessed her to be about ten to twelve years old. She had blond hair, blue eyes, and she wore a yellow ski outfit.
      "No, sir. I'm just a little sore. And hungry," she said finally.
      "Well, I can do something about that. I hope you like pancakes." Blaine turned toward his packhorse, but then looked back at the injured man. "Sir, is there anything I can do for you first?"
      "No, I'll just stay put. It's just too painful to move," he responded as he carefully leaned back against the reclined seatback. "Pancakes sound great. We haven't eaten in two days!"
      "Mr. Wells," the man called out as Blaine turned to go, "can you get us out of here?"
      "I'm sure going to try," Blaine replied as he began his search for a good place to build a fire.
      The large ash-covered area he had spotted earlier was not protected from the wind and was too large for cooking, so Blaine chose a flat place in the edge of the trees at the top of a slight rise. Large boulders surrounded it with smaller ones sprinkled around, providing ideal places for resting and for setting food, supplies, and cookware. The larger rocks would offer a windbreak and would reflect heat back into the campsite.
      Blaine then dug a bowl-shaped hole to serve as a fire pit and lined it with stones. He gathered brown pine needles and small sticks, and soon a large blaze lashed upward, sending gray smoke swirling into the crisp air. He then quickly retrieved foodstuffs and utensils and was promptly busy frying pancakes as if he performed these cooking chores for a living.
      "Mister, are you going to take us home today?" the girl asked as she moved cautiously toward Blaine.
      "No, but people are looking for you, and shortly we'll let them know you're here. They'll come. You're going to be okay," he assured her, adding a big smile. "Are there others?"
      "The others are out looking for help and food. They'll be back before dark. The only one who didn't make it . . ." she whispered, but could not finish. She looked away into the thick trees that draped the mountainside in shadows.
      Blaine did not pry. "How many survived?"
      She hesitated, counting. "Six. They're hoping to find a nearby town or village. And some water."
      "Well, I know where we can get all the water we need, and these pancakes are just about ready. Get yourself a plate and fork from that pack over there."
      He put two pancakes on her plate. But instead of eating, she quickly made her way to the plane. She climbed in and handed the meal to the crippled man. He smiled and then she handed him what was left of a small bottle of water.
      Watching, Blaine remembered. That little girl has not eaten in two days. He felt a lump rising in his throat as he quickly prepared more batter. And he resolved that he must make her a step to ease her access to the plane. The girl soon returned and silently watched as he slid a spatula underneath the pancakes.
      "That was very sweet of you. You must be a very special young lady! I'll bet your mom and dad are proud of you," Blaine said as the uncooked side of a pancake hit and sizzled against the hot skillet bottom.
      She did not reply as she walked over to get another plate and fork. She stood quietly, studying the thick trees that crowded the battered cockpit.
      "Two more ready for you," Blaine said, sensing a great sadness in the child. "And if you like syrup, there's some in that pack." He nodded his head toward the open box.
      She pulled out the brown syrup jar, and as she turned, her eyes were full of tears. Blaine, wanting to appear cheerful, quickly slid the pancakes onto her plate. "Now, those are going to be the best pancakes you've ever eaten," he said. "I'll get you some water."
      He sat a cup of water beside her on the flat surface of a wide rock and stood quietly watching. She ate hungrily. The tears were gone, but their tracks remained dimly drawn across her unwashed cheeks. "What's your name?"
      "Becky. Becky Adkins," she replied softly, reaching for her drink.
      "And the man there in the plane?" Blaine asked when she sat the cup down.
      "Walter Dutton. He's the copilot."
      Blaine wanted to ask about her parents. Were they among those out searching? Had she traveled without them? Only one person had died, probably the pilot. He decided to wait.
      "Becky, where do you live?" he asked instead.
      "Albuquerque," she answered between bites.
      "What happened?"
      "We were coming back from a big resort in Colorado. Going home."
      "And something went wrong with the plane. Do you know what?" Blaine asked as she hesitated.
      "I don't know. The motors just quit. But it wasn't the pilot's fault! I think something went wrong inside them. The pilot did a good job of landing the plane. He saved our lives!" she said emphatically, as she abruptly stood and turned away.
      "I'm sorry, Becky. This is very difficult for you. It would be for anyone. And I agree. The pilot did a wonderful job of landing the plane. Now you eat, and I'll check on your friend." He turned and walked toward the plane.
      "And I'm twelve years old!" Becky emphasized.
      Blaine turned back to the grim-faced little girl. "Well, you've obviously taken good care of Mr. Dutton. You're handling this like someone much older than twelve. If I were hurt, I'd be glad to have you to take care of me." He lingered a moment and then moved along the slope toward the crippled copilot.
      "Walter, can I get you some more pancakes?" Blaine asked as he stuck his head in.
      "You certainly can. And I'd like some of that syrup too," he replied enthusiastically.
      "I'll be right back."
      Returning to the fire, Blaine quickly cooked more pancakes, put them in Walter's plate, and added syrup as requested.
      "I'll take them to him," Becky offered suddenly, as she slid off the low boulder.
      With a smile Blaine handed them over. "I'll walk along with you."
      Becky scrambled up, handed the plate to Walter, and took a seat across from the copilot. Blaine stood outside, leaning his left elbow against the side of the plane, watching.
      Seeing the bandages on Walter's shin were blood-soaked, Blaine offered to redress the wound. The copilot agreed, and Blaine carefully soaked and removed the stained cloth, then applied disinfectant ointment and taped on long strips of gauze he had brought along.
      "Walter, who are the other passengers?" Blaine asked, wrapping on the last strip of tape.
      "Well, let's see. Bradley Hawthorne is an executive with the company that owns the plane, Frazier Industries. Then there's Milton Bragg and his wife, Pat. Milton's a long-time executive of the corporation. Donald Farley, a junior executive who thinks he runs the business, and an employee of his, Shana Matthews. I think she's an ergonomics specialist. And then there's Clayton Manley who's a friend of Jared Frazier, the company owner."
      Blaine hesitated to ask, though curious about the pilot.
      "Milton and Pat are really nice people," Walter continued, "and Clayton's a good man. He doesn't say much, but when he talks, it's worth your time. Now, I'm not too fond of Donald Farley. He's young and arrogant, if you ask me. And Bradley may be a good executive, but in a situation like this, he's a pain. Shana is scared to death. She seems nice enough, but she's never been in a place anything like this. She can't handle it, physically or emotionally. But then, you don't have to accept my evaluation of them. If you stick around a while, you'll form your own," Walter explained with a half-smile on his face. He then looked back toward Becky, who had moved to the bench seat and was stretched out resting with her eyes closed. "The best one, no doubt about it, is Becky. She's the only one I can count on, though I think the Braggs and Clayton would help."
      "I can see that. She takes very good care of you. You're lucky to have her around," Blaine replied. "What about the others? Any serious injuries?"
      "A few cuts, lots of bruises, and Milton is limping some. I expect he's hurt more than he says. He doesn't want Pat to worry about him. He intends to take care of her, no matter what. Like I said, they're good people."
      Blaine tried to organize the group in his mind, repeating their names. As he was concentrating, Walter leaned toward him, grimacing in pain.
      "Mr. Wells," he said in a low whisper. "Look out for Becky. If anything happens to me, some of the others might not treat her right. I'm counting on your being a good man. You seem to be, and Lord knows we need the help of one. Milton and Pat would help her, but they'll do well to take care of themselves. Clayton would watch out for her, but too often he yields to the voice of the others." Then in even more hushed tones, he continued. "The best man of this group died in the crash, and his body is wrapped up back there in the luggage compartment. He was . . ." Walter stopped short, glancing back at the sleeping Becky. "He was her father."
      Painfully, the copilot leaned back in his chair, grasping his right thigh just above the knee with both hands, squeezing his eyes shut.
      "I'll get busy," whispered Blaine. "You rest and take it easy."