The Heart of Christmas(127)

By: Brenda Novak

By the time the trail leveled out, his lungs burned and his quads shook, but he knew that had more to do with fear than physical exertion. He owned Crank It Up, a bike shop in Whiskey Creek, and raced mountain bikes professionally. Thanks to endless hours of training, his body could handle twenty minutes of balls-to-the-wall riding. It was the memories of the day he’d learned his brother was dead and the frightened sound of Addy’s voice that made what he was doing so difficult.

In case her life depended on his performance, he forced himself to redline it, but daylight was waning much faster than he expected. What if he couldn’t see well enough to return? Considering how narrow the trail was in places, and the sharp dropoff on one side, his tire could hit a rock or a groove in the hard-packed dirt, causing him to veer off and plummet into the freezing-cold river—an accident he wasn’t likely to survive. The road, though wider, would take twice as long.

You won’t fall. He knew this trail far too well. This was where he felt closest to his brother—and not because Cody had died here. They’d started mountain biking when they were only thirteen, used to explore these mountains all the time. That was how they’d found the mine in the first place. It was Cody who’d turned it into a popular hangout during the final weeks of high school. Kids could bring booze or weed up there without being noticed or interrupted by the police, so a core group from the baseball team had thrown parties that had occasionally gotten out of hand. Toward the end, Noah had stopped going. He hadn’t liked watching his brother snort coke, didn’t appreciate the way Cody behaved when he was stoned. Noah had also been afraid Cody would get Shania pregnant before they had the chance to leave for college and he didn’t want to attend San Diego State without him. They’d done almost everything together since birth.

He’d mentioned the risks to Cody many times, but no amount of warning seemed to faze him. Although Shania hadn’t been at the party—her parents had whisked her away to Europe as soon as she had her diploma in hand—his brother had gone a little crazy that night with all the drinking and drugs, and he paid the ultimate price. From what Noah had heard, the party Cody had thrown graduation night had been as wild as they came.

Maybe if his brother had been thinking straight, he would’ve made it home safely, like everyone else....

After navigating a few final twists and turns, Noah spotted the gravel lot next to the two-lane highway where he’d parked, and raced down the straightaway.

Sweat rolled off him the second he stopped, despite the cold, but he barely noticed as he searched his truck. He found the towrope in his toolbox, a sweatshirt shoved under his seat not far from the flashlight and a stash of energy bars. He already carried all the water he had in a bladderlike contraption on his back. Unfortunately, he’d drunk most of it, but he found a first-aid kit in his jockey box, which was some consolation.

He had what he needed, but in case things didn’t go as smoothly as he hoped, he wanted to call for help so there’d be a rescue team waiting.

He’d put his cell phone under his floor mat to keep it out of sight. There’d been a rash of car burglaries several months ago, courtesy of a group of teenagers who smoked pot and hung out at the river all summer—“river rats” they were called.

He fished his phone out to check for service. Coverage was spotty in these mountains. But obtaining a signal didn’t turn out to be the problem. His battery was dead.

“Shit!” He wasn’t one of those people who kept his phone attached to his ear 24/7. It was more of an afterthought—obviously, since he didn’t carry a charger.

He gazed up and down the road, hoping a vehicle would come by, but after a few seconds, he realized he couldn’t keep standing there. He had to make a decision. Should he drive to Jackson, which was closer than Whiskey Creek, or go back for the woman as he’d originally intended?

Jackson would take too much time. He’d promised he wouldn’t be long and for some reason it was important to him to make good on that.

Draping the rope around his neck, he tied the sweatshirt to his waist and tossed out the extra tube and tire-changing equipment he had in his seat pack without even caring where it fell. He needed room to squeeze in the energy bars and the contents of the first-aid kit. Then he held the flashlight against the handlebars and took off.

He had to get back to the mine before full dark. Otherwise, he’d be forced to take the road or travel even more slowly on the trail, and he feared that whoever was stranded in the shaft couldn’t survive the delay.

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