Tired was an understatement of how Padraic felt. He'd been on call for the past six nights, and spent more time in the OR than in bed. Still when he received Caleb's call, it was obvious this was more than a request.
The Ross twins kidnapped about the same time as Carrie's father died in the plane crash that much he remembered. But it was Caleb's choice to leave them lost almost twelve years ago, that brought him to the trail-head today. Padraic adjusted his pack and glanced up at the mid-morning sun. That decision wasn't his to make, and he was glad of it. Not that he wouldn't have done anything different, the threat on Carrie's life was more than enough to make them both walk away.
“I'm trusting God with this.” The words Caleb spoke when he asked him about the Ross children. Trust, Padraic suppressed a cough, wiped the gritty sweat from his brow and glanced toward the tree-line. God's timing, God's plan, he guessed maybe it was all tied together somehow, but it seldom made any sense to him.
He stopped his quest as the acrid scent of a mountain cat permeated his nostrils and tensed all his muscles. He hiked toward the rocky inclines which required more effort to maneuver than he wanted to invest. He hoisted his massive frame over the boulders that lined the basin at Columbine Falls. As far as he could tell there were no sign of human or canine life in the area.
Lord, please just help me find her. He rubbed his eyes then grabbed his canteen from the side of his pack. I know I'm only four miles in but I'm tired. At thirty-six years of age, the thought of chasing half-witted college students over cliffs and waterfalls appealed very little to him. He wasn't in the mood to unearth the bones or broken bodies of people dumb enough to wander in the wilderness ill prepared. In fact it was one of the reasons he left the park service, finished his doctorate and was now one of the leading trauma surgeons in the Midwest. Why am I here? He argued with himself but already knew the answer; he was called.
Padraic drew in a complete breath and basked in the natural beauty of the falls. He crossed over to the rock shelf at the edge of the basin, hesitated and looked around the again. There was no indication of a campsite, no paw prints from her dog, nothing. It was like she hadn't come to Columbine at all. He pushed himself away from the wall. Most people came to Columbine before they attempted Wilderness Falls.
“She couldn't have climbed, not with that dog.” He searched the area finding no trace. “What did I miss?” He backed tracked down the trail and found his answer.
She never came to Columbine. He pushed himself through the tree line and over the jagged terrain, and neared the vicinity of the mountain cats lair. He shook his head and smiled though disgusted with himself for missing the obvious; she followed the cat of course.
He reveled in the thundering songs of Wilderness Falls to the west. The sun dipped behind the tree line and offered a few moments shade. Padraic was thankful for being born Native-American, especially when arguing with the suns rage. His skin darkened to the color of caramel, but never burned the way Caleb did.
He kept his pace steady, even as the sun disappeared and the nocturnal animals awoke and stalked their prey. Wilderness Falls was one of his favorite places of refuge, maybe she felt the same. He scanned the ledge for any indication of her presence. The answer laid beneath his feet, the ledge he perched on made a perfect dais out into the falls.
His heart raced as he forced himself to look toward the rocks below; nothing. Thank God, he released a sigh of relief. A body was not something he wanted to deal with right now.
He released his pack, tossed it away from the ledge, then returned and sat cross-legged and drank in the spectacular view of the night skyline. His muscles ached with the freedom of his pack. Euphoria set in as he stood, his body so unencumbered by the excesses weight, he nearly stumbled placing too much strength into his steps. Morning, he knew, would claim the euphoria and replace it with a soreness from the over use of muscles he hadn't challenged in a while.
He washed his hands and face in the icy water and refilled his canteen. Scanning the area, he found a rock crest where he could bed down for the night. She was close, he could feel it, and he would need all the patience God afforded him to be civil with her in the morning. He dropped his poncho liner over the entrance of his alcove and tossed his gear inside. He was fortunate is six foot ten inch frame could fit in such limited space, and knew enough not to sit up to fast, for his head would make a fine impression on the rock above him. He set out his mat and sleeping bag then closed his eyes and prayed for rest. He never slept well, usually sleep came with a price and most of the time it wasn't worth what he paid.
“If the demons didn't get her...” Caleb's tone etched in his mind as he removed his boots and sock and allowed the mountain air massage his feet. He dug out his moccasins and placed them near the entrance, in case nature called during the night, he didn't want the hassle of wrestling with his boots. He rested his head on his knees for a moment of silent prayer before he retreated inside his sleeping bag.
A shrieking whistle pierced through the early morning serenade, which ripped Padraic from his slumber. He sat up too fast and slammed his head into rock shelf above him. He held his wound and cursed himself for being so stupid. He rubbed his injury thankful no blood was involved. He grabbed his moccasins and slid out of his shelter. She was closer than he thought. He left his quarters and made his way back toward the ledge.
There she stood. A child-like figure silhouetted by the moonlight. He stepped into the shadows as she turned her back to the falls and faced him with a look of intensity. She raised both arms and in one swift movement cast her body over the edge toward the glacier fed pool below. He gasped raced toward the edge and watched her pencil like form piece the water. Padraic stood in awestruck silence as she resurfaced unscathed. Lord, his heart beat in his throat. He caught his breath and stepped out of her line of sight. Don't approach her. Caleb's order resounded in his mind.
She eased herself from the water and bid her canine to join her. The yellow lab mix dipped his paw into the chilly water but ventured no further. She laughed and rubbed his ears, then stood wringing the water from her hair. Her tiny stature made her look child-like, but the moonlight and wet bathing suit revealed the truth. Her stare turned in his direction.
Her eyes shone like leaves turning gold in the fall, and freckles. Her nose and cheeks were sprinkled with a plethora of tiny brown freckles. From where he stood her hair looked a muddy brown shade and it barely touched her shoulders once she fastened it into a tight braid behind her head. He drew back as her gaze lifted in his direction again. Her expression remained intense radiating an absence of fear, yet an aura of defeat encompassed her very being.
He watched as she signed for the dog to follow. A sharp whistle told him, she was leaving. She headed toward the western slope which crested the top of Wilderness Falls. He waited until she was a good distance ahead before he stepped into her abandoned campsite. That was a thirty foot jump, he released his breath. Intrigued, he glanced up at the next set of cliffs. She won't be jumping from there. Those pools were riddled with underwater stalagmites.
He broke camp and switched on his radio.
“You failed to mention she doesn't stay on trail.” Padraic called in his coordinates to Caleb.
“Is she okay?” Caleb's voice reigned through the radio static.
“If you think diving from Paisley's point is okay, then she's fine.”
“Padraic, you need to stop her. She can't dive there.”
“She already has.” He started toward the ridge of Wilderness Falls.
“Well don't let her do it again.” Desperation crept from Caleb's tone.
“She looks like she knows what she's doing.”
“Jumping off cliffs..”
“If it's the same kid, she was a diver.”
“A competitive diver, not a cliff diver.”
“Maybe she's cross training.”
“Keep an eye on her, make sure she doesn't kill herself.”
“I'm not a babysitter Caleb.”
“If I had eyes on and you were in my place, what would you want me to do?”
Padraic shrugged on his ruck and started toward the top of the falls. “I'll follow her in.”
Padraic turned off his radio and shoved it into the outer pocket. Tired was an understatement of how he felt, but the girl had his interest. As far as assignments went, this one could have been far worse. She navigated well, re-coned her sites, and her pace was strong and steady. She showed no fear of rock or water. Yeah, this could have been way worse.