“Here’s the plane’s last known whereabouts.” Sheriff Patrick Collins tapped a finger on the plastic Cascade Mountains map spread across his Suburban’s hood and turned a resolute brown gaze on his team. Shivering, Brynn studied the wet map, ignoring a buzzing rush as it dumped a load of adrenaline in her gut.
It felt good.
“A hunter called it in late yesterday. He’d seen a plane flying low through the range that sounded like it was in trouble.” Collins spoke grimly. A dark, lean man, the deep lines around his mouth reflected his demanding twenty-five years with the sheriff’s department. “He said the little plane barely made it over Cougar Ridge, and he swore it had to have hit the trees on the other side of the ridge, but he couldn’t see any smoke from his position.”
The determined eyes of his three Madison County Search and Rescue team members memorized the spot on the map as icy rain ran off their red hoods. Brynn brushed a drip off her cheek and plunged her hands into the pockets of her winter parka.
“He didn’t try to check it out? Give us a clearer location?” Jim Wolf, the SAR team’s leader, scowled at the map. Confidence hovered around the stocky man like a mist. “The possible search area is huge.”
Collins shook his head. “He was alone and scouting from the forest service road.” He drew his finger along a dotted line on the map. “From that road—actually it’s more like a muddy, rut- crammed path—Cougar Ridge is over a thousand feet straight up before it drops to form a deep valley in the Cascades. There’s no way he could have hiked up there.”
Brynn eyed the distance from Collins’s finger to their present location on the map. “We’re miles away,” she muttered. From the spot where a small plane may have crashed in a huge forest.
“This is the quickest way into that valley,” Collins stated. “It’s gonna be a harsh run. You guys are the most experienced, and that’s why I want you out there. You’re the best hasty team I’ve got.”
As the hasty team, their mission was to get in to the emergency site first and fast, and assess the location. The sheriff’s department had nicknamed them “hard chargers.” After appraising the situation, they communicated their needs to the sheriff, requesting specific help or conveying bad news.
Brynn watched as Collins traced a route from the trailhead where they stood. The route left a groomed wilderness trail and pushed through one of the densest forests in the Cascades. The path wasn’t flat. There were ups and downs all the way to the site. Mostly ups.
It was going to be a tough one.
Bring it on.
Two wavy blue lines crossed their projected path on the map, and Brynn’s stomach gave an acid twinge. Rivers. And they’d be deadly fast and high from the five inches of Oregon rain in the last twenty-four hours. She glanced at the three men. Sheriff Collins and the biggest member of the team, Thomas Todoroff, were studying the route, discussing elevation. Jim wasn’t looking at the map. His concerned gaze rested on her; he knew her hatred of river crossings. She gave him the tiniest shake of her head.
“So we don’t know for sure if the plane even went down? And we’re guessing where it might’ve crashed?” Steam hovered in the frosty air from Brynn’s quick questions. She’d wanted to distract Jim, get his piercing eyes off her. “What about its emergency locator transmitter? Can’t they pinpoint it?”
Collins shook his head. “The plane didn’t make its scheduled landing at the Hillsdale airport last night. Calls to other airports confirmed it hadn’t landed anywhere within two hundred miles. And as for the ELT, no one can pick up anything. You’ve got to be in line of sight to pick up the signal, and the crappy weather is keeping away the search planes. Or it’s possible the ELT is damaged and not working.”
“Not working? I thought those things were indestructible.” The words tripped out of Brynn’s mouth as she stared at the sheriff.
“They run on batteries,” was the dour reply. “Or can be turned off.”
The group grumbled in unison at the information.
“No luck with the radar?” Jim asked.
The sheriff grimaced. “Apparently, there are several radar gaps going over the Cascades. The hunter’s visual spot was farther north than where the plane last appeared on radar. That valley’s the best place we’ve got to start, and this weather isn’t going to let up, so we’ve got to go in on foot.” Collins paused. “One more thing.” Three gazes locked onto his, and Brynn tensed at the heavy discomfort in his eyes.
What worse news could he tell us?
Collins rubbed his lips together.
“What?” Jim asked sharply. “What is it?”
“I got a call from the US Marshals’ office early this morning. Looks like the plane’s one of their transports.”
Transport? A plane packed full of convicts?
“I thought they flew the big stuff. You said this plane was small.” Brynn’s stomach twisted.
Collins shook his head. “This was a lease. They were moving a single prisoner back to Portland. The caller also told me there were two pilots and a marshal on board.”
Brynn’s stomach relaxed the littlest bit. Only one convict.
“What kind of prisoner? What’d he do?” Thomas cut to the chase. The dark man didn’t usually say much, but when he did, it was direct and to the point. The huge Alaskan hoarded words like thousand-dollar bills.