<p><b>Copyright © Gemma Snow 2018. All Rights Reserved, Totally Entwined Group Limited, T/A Totally Bound Publishing.</b></p>
“We’ve got a scent!”
Axel was trying hard not to get too far ahead of Micah to see, and Micah did his best to keep pace, following the large and very determined golden retriever down a steep incline, clenching his thighs and lowering his center of gravity to avoid sliding on the wet, fallen leaves that coated the Clark Mountain Range of Glacier National Park, at the edge of the Montana–Canada border. Axel, on his four legs, was doing a much better job holding his grip on the ground, but Micah had no desire to go sliding off the edge of the mountain and into the depths of the canyons below, so he whistled a command and the dog slowed enough for Micah to catch up.
Still, they kept an admirable pace and quickly came to a plateau of flat ground. High above, at the top of the ridge, Micah heard his partner Dec—Deckard McCormick—approaching with Rosie, Axel’s sister. Rosie kicked up a pile of leaves on the approach, clearly picking up on the same scent Axel had.
“Anything down there?” Dec shouted, the sound catching and echoing off the many flat walls of the mountain range.
“I think I saw a cave,” Micah called back, straining to look around the corner of a large boulder that jutted forth from the ground and mountainside. “Give me a second. I’ll let you know whether or not to come down.”
Dec gave the affirmative then Micah crouched low to peer around the edge of the boulder.
That wasn’t just a boulder. That was the edge of the fucking mountain, looking down over a sheer two hundred foot drop to the canyon below. For a fleeting, horrible second, vertigo caught his senses and nearly dragged him to his knees, making the sky and the high trees waver and tilt.
But Micah put a steadying hand on the rock wall and took a deep breath, settling the sky firmly above him and the ground firmly below. He commanded Axel to stay put—not that he needed to. Axel was a damn smart dog and knew better than to go canyon jumping. Then Micah lay flat on his stomach, damn near hanging over the edge of the mountain, to look around the boulder’s protruding side.
There was definitely a cave on the other side, a yawning, darkened mouth, gaping right over the valley. The question was—was there anyone in it?
“Hello,” he called, his breath labored and caught, what with his stomach pressed against the ground. And he was still pressed against the ground. He had to keep reminding himself of that. The stones and wet leaves that rasped against his forearms, giving a slight fall chill in the mountains, were all real. For this moment, at least, he wasn’t plummeting toward certain death below.
“Is there anyone in the cave?” A pause. The silence was weighty, colored by the sounds of raptors flying overhead and wind rippling through the trees that towered high above the ground, giving Micah a very odd sense of perspective as to exactly how far up in the sky he was.
Oh, about ten thousand feet…
But now was just about the worst time to calculate the distance it would take to kill a grown man, so he focused his attention on the solid ground and his mission and called out again. “This is Lewis and Clark County Search and Rescue Agent Micah Ellison, I repeat, is there anyone in the cave?”
A sound. It was barely even a real sound and if he hadn’t been trained by the very best to determine the difference between human and nature, he might not have heard it. But there it was, a whimper catching on the wind, the softest, shuddering inhalation of a very terrified child.
Chloe Robinson. Female. African American. Six years old and approximately thirty-nine inches tall. Last seen Tuesday, October Eight. Amber alert issued Wednesday, October Nine.
She’d been gone a week. In the world of search and rescue, a week was no better than a month was no better than a year. It was true what they said about forty-eight hours. Truer still when the Montana mountain ranges, of which there were many, were known for being unforgiving and merciless. Micah knew all about that first-hand.
But there was no denying the signs of life coming from the other side of the boulder. After nearly a decade of doing this job, Micah knew the sound of a frightened child all too well and unless the universe played some pretty hairy tricks, the girl on the other side of that sheer drop down to the valley was Chloe Robinson.
“Chloe,” he called out, hoping the sound would carry and not get lost on the wind, as any calls he made toward Dec and the team undoubtedly would. “Chloe Robinson.”
The sound of her fearful whimpering increased and when he called her name again, this time she answered him. Thank fuck for small victories.
“How do you know my name?”
But that was the way of kids, wasn’t it? Find them hidden in a darkened cave in the middle of a mountain range and they want to know how you know their name.
“Your mom and dad told me,” Micah replied. “See, they’ve been missing you and they sent me and my partner Dec out to see if we could find you with our dogs, Axel and Rosie. Do you like dogs, Chloe?”
A small sniff echoed across the gap, then, “I have a dog…at home. Her name is Daisy.”
Micah sighed in relief. Good, she was talking, which meant she wasn’t too dehydrated to function or too badly injured. He hoped.
“Well, Chloe, I’d really like to get you back home to Daisy, okay?” he said. “Now, I’m going to talk to my partner, but I’ll be right back…”
“No!” she shouted the word before he even finished his sentence. “Stay. Don’t leave. I don’t want to be alone anymore.”
Micah nodded and as carefully as he could, reached for the radio on his utility belt.
“Okay, I’m not leaving,” he said. “But I’m going to talk to him over the radio, okay? I just want to let him know that I found you, all right?”
She sniffled but agreed and Micah brought the radio to his mouth, doing his damnedest to think about Chloe, the brave as all hell six-year-old in the cave, and not the freaking mountainous drop right below his face.
“Dec,” he radioed over. “She’s here.” The radio crackled in and out, then cut out completely, plunging the mountain’s edge into silence that suddenly felt a whole hell of a lot colder and lonelier than it had a minute ago.
Or maybe that was just the clouds rolling in overhead. For fuck’s sake.
Okay, okay. He’d dealt with hairier situations than this and he was damn well going to get that girl out of the cave if it was his last act on earth and all that. He sent up a prayer to as many of his gods as he could remember in the moment then called back to the little girl.
“Just you and me now, Chloe, okay?” he said. “Now, I’m going to hook my belaying chord to a tree on this side of the gap then I’m coming over to you. You can talk to me. I can hear you.”
He stood and stepped a foot in from the edge of the cliff, allowing himself one deep breath before walking over to the thick oak tree growing sideways out of the mountain. He tested a branch with his weight, finding it thick and sturdy, before tossing the end of the rope around it and securing the knot that he had been tying since he was about Chloe’s age. He tugged on the end attached to his security belt and, satisfied, returned to the edge of the mountain.
“How did you end up here, Chloe?” Don’t look down, Micah.
“I got lost,” Chloe said, only a slight sniffle to her voice. Christ, this six-year-old little girl has bigger balls than I do. “I hid in the cave and fell asleep then there was a huge lightning storm. I woke up when all the rocks crashed.”
On closer inspection, Micah could tell that a big section of the mountain had broken free, creating the gap between him and the cave where Chloe was hidden. She’d walked into the cave and hadn’t been able to walk out, unless she was some sort of New Age Jesus.
“Well, you’re very brave, Chloe,” he said, testing the rope one more time. “I’m coming over now, okay?” And before she could answer him, he began the slow, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other walk across the large yawning mouth of the valley. He didn’t dare lift his feet, but rather scraped them along the mountain’s edge, making rock and dust crumble, and he gritted his teeth to keep from following their path with his eyes.
He’d been working for Lewis and Clark County Search and Rescue Team for nearly six years and he never got over that feeling of being suspended over the incredibly far valley below. Even two decades later, memories still plagued him, very nearly paralyzing a man who was otherwise incredibly good at his job.
But before Micah could give in to any of those fears or panics, his feet touched down on the other side, grounding him against the dirt and mossy leaves, and there he was, at the entrance to the cave.
“Chloe,” he called, his voice soft and gentle. “It’s me, Micah. Do you want to come out of there now?”
She emerged, her movements slow and wary. Her clothes were dirty and her hair had all manner of sticks and leaves tangled in the curls, but she appeared otherwise unharmed, and Micah let out a low breath of relief. “You did a good job hiding here, honey,” he said. “Now, I’d like to bring you home to your mom and dad, okay?”
She nodded and sniffled. “Okay.” It seemed that the bravery that had gotten her so far was just about tapped out. Well, fine, she was allowed to be a kid again. It was no longer her responsibility to get home safely.
“Okay,” he repeated. “Now, I’m going to hook you into this harness, then we’re going to slowly walk across that gap. My dog, Axel, he’s on the other side, waiting to meet you.”
She nodded and, before either of them got the chance to freak the fuck out about trekking across that massive drop again, Micah had her hooked into the front section of the harness built for rescue missions just like this one, and he was scooting them alongside the mountain’s sheer face, shuffling his feet and trying to keep breathing.
Then, mercifully, they were back on solid freaking ground, both inhaling more breath than necessary. Micah slowly, carefully, stood and picked Chloe up, hoisting her onto his hip. He unhooked the harness from the tree and whistled for Axel to follow before beginning the trek back up the hill to where their point camp was located.
It only took a few minutes. Axel kept a good pace and Chloe weighed about as much as a couch cushion, and before he knew it, the blue tent from their rescue rendezvous camp loomed into sight. A brief, weighty silence stretched across the mountain. Then all hell broke loose.
Her mother screamed then both of Chloe’s parents were sprinting toward them, Police Chief Cade Easton and two of his deputies hot on their heels. Mr. Robinson took Chloe from Micah’s arms and both of her parents were hugging her and touching her and making sure she was still in one piece. Micah tried to fade back, but Chloe grabbed the arm of his windbreaker.
“Thank you, Mr. Micah,” she whispered, her bright eyes shining. Her parents both looked up at him with the same glowing adoration.
“Thank you, Micah,” Mrs. Robinson said, as Mr. Robinson stuck out his hand and shook it hard, before bringing Micah in for a bear hug. Then they were gone, carrying Chloe over to the medic tent, and Micah stepped back to watch them walk off into the distance. He should have been relieved. They hadn’t expected such a happy ending for Chloe and they’d been lucky, more than lucky.
But still, the ache in his chest didn’t dissipate and he knew it was no longer fear that made him feel so heavy and forlorn. Axel whimpered at his side, and Micah dug into one of his pockets to give the dog a treat. He loved Axel and Rosie and the other search dogs they kept at the Black Reef Survival Camp, but dogs were a poor substitute for family, for parents, for children, for people who loved a person unconditionally. Well, dogs were what he was going to get, a truth he’d come to terms with a long time ago. Family wasn’t in the cards for him, not the kind of family Chloe Robinson had. No, Axel and Rosie, they were what he got, so he’d damn well better be happy about it.
“Hey there, Superman,” Dec said, coming up behind him, Rosie hot on his heels. “Or should I say Spider-Man? That was some gravity-defying shit you did down there.”
And Dec McCormick. Of course. He counted as Micah’s business partner, search partner, family and best friend, all rolled into one not-giving-a-damn package of good-old-boy humor and charm. Dec was one of the few people in the world who knew just how much Micah hated heights, but, as with most things, he played to the lighter side of the situation.
“I can’t be out-balled by a six-year-old,” Micah said, suddenly feeling very weary. He followed Dec away from the camp and toward their cabin a little way down the mountain. If Cade needed them to give statements, he knew where to find them.
“Ain’t that the truth,” Dec said. “Come on, let’s get a beer.”
Micah nodded, but glanced back up at the Robinson family one more time. Growing older with a houseful of dogs and their business and Dec McCormick by his side definitely wasn’t the worst life a guy could have.