The helicopter is a giant mosquito, some huge predatory night-insect with a single glowing cyclopean eye, dropping towards the diamond of red sparks like a bug to a candle. One hand white-knuckled on his harness, the other wrapped around his pack, he watches out the open door as the hastily prepared landing zone approaches. It's completely dark except for the flare grid and the stars; the ground team has switched off their flashlights to avoid blinding the chopper pilot. Forty-seven is too goddamn old for this five-am aeromedic crap, he's thinking, but he wouldn't be anywhere else. He tells himself to be calm, chill out, breathe easy, as the chopper slows and sets down. A second after he feels the skids hit the muddy ground, the copilot slaps his shoulder, giving him a thumbs-up. He pops his harness, hops out, and runs straight ahead, cowering down from the fearsome rotors over his head, pack held across his chest. He stops next to one of the ground team members, a woman who flicks on a small flashlight as soon as he reaches her. Turning, he's just in time to see her wave to the chopper pilot with the flashlight, shooing the bug away, back up into the sky. The drone of the helicopter's turbine spools back up to a scream, and it rises straight up before arcing away, nose-mounted spotlight flickering across the trees and bluffs, strobes flashing enigmatically. Around them, the forest is primeval and stygian, old-growth tree trunks enormous columns holding up the sky, barely lighter than the rest of the darkness. It's cold for April, and the wind is blowing, rustling the foliage in a way that is somehow menacing. He thinks that this is like something out of a child's nightmare, with a bogeyman to jump out, ready to devour, and he shivers despite himself. The woman motions briskly, and he snaps out of it, grabs a pair of gloves from his pocket, follows her a little ways into the forest where a litter lies, and on it a small blanket-wrapped form. He kneels next to the litter, and even as he glances over the medical sheet pinned to the blanket he's pulling his pack open, grabbing the IV start kit. The members of the search team cluster around nervously, anxious to help. Too long, he thinks, the kid in front of him was lost too long, nearly a day and a half since he wandered away from his home, not enough clothes on, no food, no shelter. The boy is barely conscious anymore, doesn't respond when his name is called, pulse weak and thready, breathing shallow. Brown eyes are shaded by half-closed lids, and he notices that the boy looks very scared. The bogeyman lives in the forest and the river, he thinks, but I'll be damned if he gets this one. He's seen people in better shape than this die; people much older and stronger expire from much less. He doesn't care. The woman asks what to do, and he thinks for a moment, evaluating the condition of the child in front of him, feeling the responsibility settle around him, almost palpable. The nearest real road is a long ways away, and there's a medevac chopper on standby back in Eugene. Hiking or flying, either way is dangerous for the boy, very dangerous. He picks the helicopter only because it is faster, and as the woman grabs her radio he pulls the blankets back, calling for light. Five Maglites go on at once, bathing the scene in a cool halogen glow, pushing back the darkness. He rips open the sterile package in his hands, seeing the needle glint in the light. Hang on, he says softly, swabbing the kid's arm with a prep pad and plunging the tiny metal spear home. Forty minutes later, bouncing toward the hospital landing pad in an Air National Guard Blackhawk, he sits next to the boy, stable now, pulling through. He holds one tiny hand in his own, staring out the window at the land below, just beginning to see the sun again. Somewhere down under the clouds, early-morning light sparkles off water; somewhere down there is a river. He grins to himself, finally making up for what he could not do some twenty-nine years before. He holds the kid's hand, and his other hand clenches, holding on to the rope, the two of them swinging safe above the river.

Copyright (C) 2000 Garth Melnick