12/9/10

10 Stranded

Sarah crouched low in the front seat of her little blue Geo, waiting for the light to change. The defroster fan sounded like a DC3 ready for takeoff but only a small section of the windshield had cleared of frost. Cold weather couldn’t dampen Sarah’s spirits though. Finals were over and she was headed home after finishing her classes at BYU-Idaho. She felt like a snowboarder on a downhill run. What pure delight, no obstacles in sight.

Except Christmas.

Sarah fidgeted with the silver CTR ring on her left hand, dreading the traditional family get-together at her parent’s house. Aunts, uncles, and all 42 cousins would ask the same nosey question. Why aren’t you married yet? Her younger sister had already started a family. Sarah didn’t even have a boyfriend.

The light turned green and Sarah made a quick decision. Instead of turning west on Highway 20, she turned right. Her roommate had told her about a scenic short-cut through the national forest. It would be less crowded and Sarah was in no hurry to get home.

Snow-covered pines looked like a picture on a Christmas card as the two-lane road climbed higher into the mountains. Christmas music played non-stop on the radio. The overcast sky looked threatening but Sarah was in such a holiday mood, she didn’t care. She sang along with the radio, “Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”

At first it was just a flurry but now the snow fell thick and heavy. The Geo’s windshield wipers swung frantically back and forth but Sarah couldn’t see. She was in a white fog.

Sarah kept driving. If she stopped, she might be rear-ended. If she kept going, she’d eventually climb above the clouds. Somewhere the sun was shining.

Thoughts of bright sunshine brought memories of her mission in Arizona. Sarah loved the pale blue color of the desert sky. Last Christmas in Tucson, she and her missionary companion had strung chili pepper lights on the Christmas tree. Sarah remembered the fun they had delivering secret Santa gifts when suddenly, she was thrown forward against the steering wheel.

She’d run off the road. Fear tightened her stomach as she reached for her jacket and scarf. She forced open the door and stepped into a snow bank. Wet, chilling snow spilled over the top of her Rocket Dog boots.

She searched for a shovel in the trunk under the wrapped packages she was bringing home to her family. There was none. She flipped open her cell phone and dialed her parent’s number. No signal.

It would be dark in an hour. The thought of spending the night in the car was frightening. She’d been warned never to leave a stranded car in a snowstorm. Surely that didn’t apply in her case. She’d climb through the trees and find a signal, call for help and then wait in the car for it to arrive.

Dressed in her warm ski jacket, gloves and fur-lined boots, Sarah set out through the snow, pausing every few minutes to check her phone for a signal. The temperature had dropped well below freezing and her nose felt tingly. She wrapped her bright pink scarf around her head, leaving only her eyes exposed to the cold. When she turned around to look where she’d been, her footprints were filling fast with snow.

Climbing through a thick stand of spruce trees, Sarah heard a sad whimper. It sounded like a wounded dog. She pushed aside the snow-laden branches and saw a man with a rifle less than thirty feet away. As if in slow motion, he aimed his rifle at the helpless animal and fired.

Sarah’s heart was pounding in her ears. She stomped through the snow to confront him. “I saw what you did,” she shouted.

“Where’d you come from?” He wore snowshoes, a ranger’s hat and insulated coveralls. A ski mask hid his face.

Coming closer, Sarah saw the dead animal. A dog or coyote had been caught in a trap. The hunter had put it out of its misery.

“Someone’s setting illegal traps,” he said. “I’ve got to find out who it is.”

“My car’s stuck in the snow.” Sarah felt foolish now for raising her voice. “I need to call for help.”

“You’re out of luck, Pinky. There’s no signal up here.”

She stiffened at his rudeness, poking fun at her pink scarf. “My name is Sarah Griffith,” she said. “I live in the Bear Lake Valley. I was going home for Christmas.”

He ignored her, checking an ear tag on the bloody carcass in the snow. Sarah stood aside and waited while he released the dead animal and recovered the trap.

“My cabin’s not far from here,” he said. Powdery snow had collected on the brim of his hat. “Come with me.”

“Was it a coyote?” she asked.

“No. A wolf.”

Sarah glanced nervously through the darkening forest. He’s mistaken, she thought. There are no wolves in Idaho.

The hunter carried his rifle slung on his shoulder and the bloody trap in his gloved hand. Sarah followed. Wearing snowshoes, he stepped on the snow; she sank down in it. He took long strides; she struggled to keep up.

He switched on a flashlight and waved the beam of light through the trees. “Wait here,” he ordered and disappeared in the forest.

Sarah was shaking. Why had she trusted this man? He wore a ranger’s hat but that didn’t prove anything. It was completely dark now and she was alone and scared. Lord, please help me, she prayed.

He returned with another trap. A larger one. “That looks like a bear trap,” Sarah said.

“It’s an antique.” He dropped it in the snow beside the other one. “Must weigh 40 pounds.”

“Are you a trapper?”

“No. But sometimes it’s part of the job. I work for the Idaho Fish and Game in the wolf recovery program.”

“Wolves?” Sarah had no sympathy for the wolves. They didn’t mix with sheep and her family had been sheep ranchers for generations. “I thought the wolves were in Yellowstone.”

“Not anymore.” He handed Sarah the flashlight. “Take this. I’ve got my hands full.”

Sarah carried the heavy flashlight, packed with “D” batteries. The game warden carried both traps and the rifle. They trudged through the snow in the dark for a half-hour before arriving at his cabin. Sarah noticed there was no vehicle parked in the yard. She took the cell phone from her pocket. No signal either.

The warden unstrapped his snowshoes and propped them against the log wall. “Home sweet home,” he said as he opened the unlocked door. It was dark inside. A woodstove in the corner gave off the last of its heat. He pulled off his gloves, struck a match and lit the kerosene lamp.

The lamp cast a cozy glow on the red-checkered tablecloth and rumpled quilts on the bed. Sarah glanced about the room. There was a gun cabinet, bookshelf, sink and dish cabinets. Above the sink, canned vegetables were arranged on a shelf. She took off her gloves and loosened the pink scarf around her neck. “You live like a pioneer.”

“It’s my grandfather’s cabin. I live in Driggs.” He removed his hat and then the ski mask.

Sarah couldn’t help staring. He had a dark, full beard, dark eyes and a handsome, straight nose. She guessed he was still in his twenties although the beard made him appear older.

“There’s a chair,” he said, motioning with his hand.

Sarah remained standing. She watched him shove a few sticks of kindling in the firebox and build up the fire.

“Coffee will be ready in a few minutes.” He set an enamel coffee pot over the heat.

“No, thanks. I’d like a drink of water.”

He filled a tin cup for her from a pitcher. It tasted like spring water, delicious and clean. “How do you get to Driggs?” she asked. “I didn’t see your car.”

“My truck’s parked down at the trail head.” He unzipped and stepped out of his coveralls.

Sarah felt uncomfortable watching him undress but she didn’t turn away. Under the coveralls he wore a green uniform with the Idaho Game and Fish shoulder patch. He hung the coveralls and hat on wooden pegs on the wall.

“I don’t want to be a bother, but I need to get home tonight. My mother’s expecting me.”

He raised a dark eyebrow. “What about your husband?”

Sarah blushed, embarrassed. “This isn’t a wedding ring,” she said, lifting her left hand. “It’s a chastity ring.”

“Is that supposed to scare off guys like me?” he asked, chuckling.

Sarah walked to the door. “I have to go.”

“Where? It’s dark and snowing. You’ll be wolf bait out there.” He shrugged. “I’ll drive down the road and find phone service, but let me get something to eat first.” He rummaged through utensils in the drawer and pulled out a can opener. “Hope you like chili.”

Sarah sat at the table in the only chair and watched him dump two cans of Dennison’s in a pan on the stove. The water in the coffee pot was already making rumbling noises.

“I don’t know your name,” she said, feeling awkward.

“Sorry, I don’t get much company out here. My name’s Josh Poulson.” He looked over at Sarah. “I forgot your name.”

“Sarah Griffith.”

“You’re lucky I found you. You could freeze to death on a night like tonight.”

“You didn’t find me; I found you. You’re an answer to my prayer.” She realized as soon as she said it that he might misunderstand.

He stirred the chili. “What did you pray for? Snow?”

“No, of course not.”

“They say God answers prayers in mysterious ways.” He scooped the chili into bowls. “I prayed once.”

Sarah waited, wondering if he’d explain. He didn’t.

“God hears and answers our prayers,” she said, “though not always the way we want Him to.”

Josh reached for a framed photo from the bookshelf above his bed. He handed it to Sarah. It was a picture of a beautiful young woman holding a baby.

“Is that your family?” she asked.

“They died in a fire three years ago.”

“I’m sorry.” Her voice was a whisper.

“Nothing could save them. Not even prayer.”

Sarah handed back the photograph. “I believe that families can be together forever.”

“That’s what I’ve been told.” His eyes narrowed. “You’re a Mormon, aren’t you?”

“Yes.”

“I should have known when you turned down the coffee.” He set her bowl of chili on the table and sat on the bed to eat his. “I work with a Mormon guy,” he said. “Even went to church with him a few times. But it’s not for me.”

“Why?” Sarah mumbled with her mouth full.

He smiled. “I was the only one with a beard.”

They ate in silence, listening to the fire crackle in the woodstove. The cabin was warm now. Sarah shrugged off her jacket and hung it on the back of the chair.

“What’s your major?” Josh asked.

She realized he was staring at her BYU-I sweatshirt. “Occupational therapy. I want to help people reclaim their lives after an accident or a stroke.”

“Good choice.” He took her empty bowl and set it in the sink. “It makes more sense than tracking wolves most people don’t want here in the first place.”

“How do you feel about it?” she asked. “The wolf problem?”

He sat on the edge of the bed and stretched his long legs toward the stove. “They deserve a place in the ecosystem.”

Sarah yawned, only half-listening as he explained the wolf recovery program. You’re a lone wolf yourself, Josh Poulson, she thought---definitely not my type. I’m going to marry a returned missionary, not a mountain man who rescues wolves.

He must have noticed her squirm because he changed the subject. “Are there any bears left in the Bear Lake Valley?”

Sarah assured him there plenty of bears, even bald eagles and moose. She learned he’d grown up in Jackson, Wyoming. Josh hated the way it had changed. Too many fancy resorts, tourist shops and movie stars.

Josh made instant hot chocolate with the water boiling in the coffee pot, and while he cleaned his rifle, Sarah talked about school and her mission for the LDS Church in Arizona. She found Josh was easy to talk to and laugh with.

“Does this cabin have a bathroom?” she asked.

“Out back. Here, take the flashlight.”

Sarah walked out into the frigid night. Snow was falling fast and heavy. She was used to outhouses on the back trails, but she’d never get used to a frozen seat.

When she returned to the cabin Josh had on his jacket and boots. “I’ll be back soon,” he said. “The truck is about a mile down the trail.”

Sarah was worried. “It’s snowing hard.”

“I’ll be okay.” He paused, looking down into her eyes. For one heart-racing moment she thought he was going to kiss her. She was surprised to find that she hoped he would. But he didn’t. He took the large flashlight from her hand and exchanged it for a smaller one. “In case you need it.”

It was lonely in the cabin now. Sarah missed Josh.

She added wood to the fire and washed the dishes. Finally she relaxed on the bed, closed her eyes and wondered what her parents would think of Josh when he came to Christmas dinner. She hadn’t asked him yet but she felt sure he’d accept. The tricky part would be keeping the conversation away from wolves and sheep. When she opened her eyes the room was colder. The fire in the woodstove had burned down to coals.

Josh had been gone almost three hours. He’d said it wouldn’t take long. What happened? Sarah knelt by the bed and prayed. When she got up, her anxiety heightened. Josh was in trouble. She knew it. And she knew she had to go find him.

Sarah pulled on her jacket, scarf and gloves and grabbed the flashlight. Before leaving the cabin she blew out the kerosene flame.

It was still snowing, a fine white flurry. Which way had he gone? The flashlight beam illuminated the imprints of Josh’s snowshoes and with a thankful prayer, she followed the trail through the woods.

The only sound was the crunch of her boots in the snow. Her breath blew away in white vapor. The flashlight dimmed and in a moment of panic, she realized it might fail. “Josh!” she called. “Josh, where are you?”

She waited.

A moment later a wolf howled. It was close, too close. Sarah’s hand shook on the flashlight. She shined the light into the trees and saw two eyes reflected in the beam. With a gasp, she backed away and fell down in the snow. When she scrambled back to her feet, the eyes had disappeared.

Sarah ran through the forest, sure the wolf was stalking her. Lost and disoriented, her heart pounded in her chest. Was that a light in the distance? Yes, the beam of a flashlight. “Josh!” she called.

“Sarah! Over here!”

Sarah followed his voice and found him lying in a crumpled heap in the snow. She knelt by his side with tears in her eyes. “What happened?”

“I stepped in a trap.” The jagged teeth had closed on his leg above his boot. His pant leg was stained with blood. “Didn’t see it in the snow.” His voice was weak and slurred.

Sarah leaned close. His lips were blue, his voice weak and slurred---symptoms of hypothermia. She worked with both hands to pry the trap open. It wouldn’t budge. Her gloves became wet with his blood.

Her flashlight fell from where she’d tucked it under her chin, striking the metal. It gave Sarah an idea. She used Josh’s big flashlight as a lever to pry open the trap. Again and again the flashlight slipped but Sarah kept trying. Finally the jaws opened.

Josh groaned as the steel teeth pulled out of his flesh. Panting for breath, he pulled his leg free. Sarah released the trap and it snapped shut.

Josh rolled away, shivering violently.

“Is your leg broken?” she asked.

“I don’t know.” He sat against a tree, pressing his gloved hands against the wound.

Sarah tugged the scarf from her neck. “I’m going to try to stop the bleeding.” She wrapped her scarf around his leg just above his knee and pulled the knot tight.

“Pink clashes with my uniform,” he said through chattering teeth.

Sarah smiled. If he could joke at a time like this, she knew he was going to be all right. “You’re making a new fashion statement. It’s called staying alive.” She took his arm and draped it over her shoulder, helping him to stand. Josh leaned heavily against her, and together they hobbled to the trail head.

The truck engine started up and in a few minutes the heater was warming the cab. Sarah wrapped Josh in a blanket he kept in the cab.

“I know how you found me.” He caught his breath. “You’re the answer to my prayer.”

Sarah’s boots barely reached the pedals. She was reaching for the lever to adjust the seat when Josh slipped over unconscious against her shoulder. With a prayer in her heart, she drove the truck down the snow-covered road. A mile or two later she checked her cell phone and found a signal.

Sarah explained Josh’s condition to the 911 dispatcher and gave him the GPS coordinates from the locator on the dash.

“We’ll send an ambulance out to meet you,” he said.

Sarah called home next. “Where are you?” her mother sounded frantic. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. I got lost.” The signal was breaking up but Sarah had just enough time to say, “Set another place for Christmas dinner. I’m bringing home a friend.”

7 comments:

Rebecca Irvine said...

vote

Anonymous said...

I vote for this one.

writerbob39 said...

Beautiful story!

Lora Dawn said...

This one gets my vote

writerbob39 said...

I vote for this one.

Anonymous said...

I vote for this one.

~T~ said...

I enjoyed how these characters helped each other. Unexpected friendship is a wonderful gift.