The screams snapped my attention uphill. Nothing should have been happening behind my back. The skiers were supposed to sit still and let the chairlift take them to the top of the bunny slope. Quiet, other than the thrum of the machinery and the occasional conversation, was more usual. I was loading a munchkin-age ski class--they were wide-eyed and quieter than I expected. I'd slowed the lift to about half speed to seat them, which may have been all that saved that child.
A little girl shrieked and a second voice joined in, then more. "Do nothing fast" was really important now as I further slowed and then stopped the lift. Any quick motions would dislodge the small boy who now dangled upside down by one ski caught in the chairlift.
I knew how easily those bindings would release--I came out of mine every time I fell. A twist of an ankle would bring the child plummeting to the snow twenty feet below. His panicked thrashings made that more likely with every passing second.
"I call ski patrol!" yelled Egon, groping for the radio with his gloved hand. I hoped his accent wouldn't thicken beyond understanding from the tension, but he was already in the control hut and knew the channels. Have to learn those, but not in the middle of an emergency.
"Then come and help me!" I yelled back. I dashed into and out of the hut where Egon had been keeping watch. He barely noticed me scooping up the climbing rope and harness that he'd scolded me for even touching just a few days ago. The ski patrol did the rescues, he'd informed me snottily; the lowly lift operators were not to handle the equipment. I'd ignored him.
This kid couldn't wait for the patrol to show. Every second he stayed up was a gift from the heavens--he didn't have the minutes to spare for the experts. "Don't wiggle, kid! Hold real still! I'm coming up to get you!" I kept yelling at him to stop thrashing as I unraveled the coils. His chair had come to a halt about seventy yards from the loading area. I ran up the hill, glad for the packed snow under the lift.
I flung the rope up and over the cable, fully expecting to get elbowed out of the way. Whoever went up to fetch would only get there that much faster if the rope was already installed. The kid's hat fell on me. The kid might be next. I slung the end with the ascenders into position, feeding line and letting the weight of the hardware pull the rope over the cable. The other end of the rope had knots every few feet and would have fouled on the cable, something I would not have known if I hadn't scrutinized the equipment against Egon's wishes.
"Hold still, kid, we're coming!" I could see his wide, panicked eyes staring straight down at the unforgiving snow, which would snap his neck just as surely as concrete if he came out of that ski binding. The screaming from his seat partner and the kids in other chairs hadn't abated, though he was quiet now. There was no sign of the patrol--surely they'd be here in an instant? Egon appeared beside me, angling to be under the child to break his fall.
Where was the patrol? I had both ends of the rope together, so I shoved them at Egon. "Hold this taut! Tight!" His English was good, but.... The harness was attached to one jumar, the clip that stayed in one place with weight on it but would slide when unweighted. Where was the patrol? The kid was starting to shriek again, so I thrust my legs into the harness and brought the loose end around my waist to clip myself in.
Kurt had taught me to do this, though neither of us had ever envisioned the novice climber being the one to attempt a rescue. But it was me or Egon, who wasn't moving, and I knew I could get up that rope fast. "Keep it real tight. I'm going up!" I snarled at him. I grasped the doubled rope with my feet braced against the knots and jumared my hands up the other side. Kurt had emphasized safety over speed, but this kid's safety lay in speed because he could come down at any time. I was clipped in, that was as safe as it was going to get. I'd come down hard, too, if Egon couldn't keep enough weight on the rope. Maybe someone was down there helping him by now, but I dared not spend the attention to look.
"Hang on! I'm almost there," I kept reassuring the little boy and myself. A few more feet and I'd reach the chair. Hauling upward with my arms and pushing up with my feet on the knots was getting me where I needed to go. Little hands reached to me once I made it the last foot to chair level--I snagged the boy. He nearly strangled me with his arms around my neck. "I won't let you fall. I promise."
I could promise that now; it hadn't been a certainty at all. "We're going to go up a little more, okay?" I had to, or I wouldn't be able to get him unhitched. That damned binding should have released him with all the torque we were putting on it, and it was stuck fast. I had no more hands available, so I hauled us up the rope with another few pulls of the jumars and clung for dear life with my feet, once I finally found one of the knots. He had U-turned as we went up and was upright again. I hoped he wouldn't pass out on me. "See, I got you," I crooned. I tried to decide how to get him untangled, now that the danger of a fall was past. At least he wasn't howling any more.
His ski was caught in the safety bar of the chair, but I had a second child to worry about while I fixed that. "Sweetie, you are going to sit real still while I lift the bar to get your friend unstuck, okay?" I tried to smile reassuringly at the little girl who had been uncorking the ear-splitting screeches. "All you have to do is sit real still." Suggesting that she might fall out if she didn't was a fast track to more screaming, I thought. She blinked at me and nodded a fraction of an inch. "Yeah, real still. Good, good...."
I felt like I was talking to one of the horses at the Rendezvous Lake Lodge stables, but the more I talked, the calmer she got, and the little guy who clung to me stayed still and quiet while I lifted the safety bar with one hand to release his ski. It swung around and finally came free, clipping me hard in the knee. The pain made me gasp, but I didn't drop anything or anyone. Now I wondered if I should take them both down. Where was the class instructor? They were wearing the number bibs of a ski school--more bibs were on the chairs ahead of us and on the one behind. The instructor was below me, apparently, along with a patrol, at last. I didn't want to get the kids, however frightened, separated from the rest of the group, but I wasn't the nanny on skis.
"Up or down?" I yelled.
"Up!" the instructor called back. "Go with them!" She sprinted, or maybe clumped, back down to her skis, which she'd abandoned at the loading zone. "I'll meet you at the top!"
Of course I'd go with them. One screamer and one clinger would feel a whole lot better with an adult. No way was I was going to send two frightened children up the mountain alone.
"Looks like I get to ride with you guys!" I said with a brightness I didn't feel. "You sit down on this side, and I'll get in the middle." There would be just enough room if I didn't drop anyone getting in. The little boy let me put him in the lift chair and shifted his death grip from my neck to the chair arm. I was scared I'd tip the chair with my weight, but I was able to pull myself up one more arm's reach with the jumars and drop into the seat without altering the balance. The safety bar came down first, then I unclipped the harness from the rope. The kids seemed to approve of my priorities; they relaxed just a little, and the girl clutched the bar with her mittened hands.
"We're good!" I called down, and Egon, who had neither complained nor let go, began to haul the rope off the cable. He'd kept that rope taut, which must have taken his entire body weight, or the unanchored rope would have dropped me right out of midair.
"Wait for me at the top!" called the ski patrol, making my heart sink. I'd usurped his role in this rescue, certain that the child wouldn't remain dangling for long. I wondered how much trouble I was in.
That was going to have to wait while I chatted with my new buddies. By the time we got to the top of the mountain, they should be over the worst of their fright. I didn't want this event to spoil their perceptions of skiing, the way a broken ankle had spoiled mine.
The ride to the top let the kids relax; the little girl decided I was a good guy and snuggled up against me on the one side, and the little boy, cause of all this, wanted my arm over his shoulders. It was cold enough that I put my hat on him and hoped that the instructor had grabbed the one that had fallen on me. The lift started to move again, so I started asking questions, which got one-word answers at first. Soon they were yakking away as if nothing had ever happened, telling me their names, Gracie and Todd, that they were twins, five years old, almost six, and that they loved skiing more than anything.
We had a short way to the top when I asked the vital question. "Todd, what were you doing when you fell out?"
"See the pretties?" He pointed at the trees to either side of the lifts--people had thrown Mardi Gras necklaces into the branches. The trees were festooned in bright beads: purple, green, silver, gold. "Mama likes pretties, so I tried to get one for her. But they were too far away, and I fell out."
A child had nearly died for some festive trash. Such beads were common, Kurt told me when I'd asked, and I'd only thought it amusing. Now I wondered how many times I'd be shimmying up a rope, and if the child would end up clutching my waist or broken in the snow.
"They're too far away. I couldn't reach, and I've got grownup arms." I waved my arm out the side of the chair to demonstrate. "Promise you won't grab at them again?"
"Okay," he agreed with a mutinous pout. "But there was a close one."
"Not that close," I reminded him. He grinned at me, and I quit worrying about Todd no longer enjoying skiing and began to wonder more about what else he'd find to get into.
"Your job as a skier is to sit quietly on the chair until it's time to get off," I told them. "Which is now." I lifted the bar and helped them offload, help they probably didn't need, I thought enviously as they skied over to the little group of bibs who had already reached the top. They probably skied as well as I did; they could afford to be fearless because they didn't have nearly so far to fall. The instructor was a few chairs behind us, so I waited with the little group, none much bigger than my pals and none with ski poles.
Todd was done with me, but Gracie held my hand and chattered at the children, and when the instructor got to the top with the last of the kids, she introduced me.
"Miss Julie, this is Jake, he saved Todd, he's so cool!" All of this was getting recorded for posterity--I noticed a few people with their cell phones out taking pictures. Maybe videos. I didn't want to think about how many times my face would be on YouTube by tonight. One of the picture takers fell into a snow bank, and I couldn't bring myself to feel sorry for him.
Miss Julie checked Todd over carefully, though he was all agog to get back down the mountain and tried to squirm away. I checked out Julie: about my age, brunette curls exploding at the ends of long braids and a figure that looked all right even in insulated pants. Kurt had said the resort wanted good-looking employees. She looked like confirmation of his statement. If she always got the very young students, I was going to be seeing her a lot at the bunny slope lift.
"I guess he's okay. He's acting like his usual daredevil self," she said, swapping his blue hat with the big white pom-pom for my gray beanie. I was glad to get my head covered again, since my ears might freeze solid in another five minutes.
"I asked him if anything hurt, and he said no. More shaken than anything, and even that didn't last." I had to smile--Todd was scooting down the slope two feet at a time. He'd be at the foot of the mountain before this conversation was done if we didn't hurry. "He wanted to grab one of the necklaces in the trees for his mother."
"Figures," she said darkly. "His mother knows all about getting men to give her jewelry." I raised my eyebrows at her, and she squinched her face with embarrassment. "Did I say that out loud? Forget I said that, please." Her eyes carried a hint of flirtation.
Wondering who Todd's mother was, I just said, "Don't worry."
The ski patrol had off-loaded and had joined us. "Is the kid okay?" he asked Julie.
"The kid trying hardest to get away is the one who was upside down. He's fine, Mark." She spoke into her radio, and then she and her little crew were off to shouts of "Pizza slice turns! Follow me!" The line of tiny skiers, even Todd, trailed her across the snow doing snowplow turns, though Gracie had to hug me one last time before she followed the class, skiing with skill that none matched, except Todd.
The ski patrol introduced himself as Mark McAvoy and asked all the details of the rescue before he got to the question that worried me. "Why didn't you wait?" There was no anger in the question, making me think he only wanted to know, not that he wanted to admonish me.
"I knew how to use the equipment, and I thought the kid's ski was going to come off any second. It was about twenty feet down. I figured that I'd have the rope up for you, and then it didn't seem safe to wait any more."
"I'm glad you didn't, even if the lift operators aren't supposed to do that sort of thing. He could have come down at any minute. You were most of the way up the rope before I got there. I was halfway down the Galloping Goose; it took me a couple of minutes." That was an intermediate run, marked with a blue square on the maps, which led into the bunny hill.
I laughed, more at the name of the run than anything else. This mountain had trails named everything from Helium Heights to Fast Track to Nowhere. The names at least told you exactly where you were, and it was a lot more fun to say "I fell twice on The Cereal Bowl," than "I fell twice on Easy Number Three."
"I figured you'd say something if I needed to know."
"I wasn't about to joggle your elbow, although you could have clipped the kid in with that extra webbing on the harness instead of your arm, but he was thin enough you could reach around him. You do some rock climbing?" Mark sounded friendly.
"Some. I've used jumars. Ascenders." Wish I'd realized about that extra strap; it might have saved me some worry.
"Good thing too." He made some notes in a pocket-sized notebook. "What's your full name? I'll need to put it in the report."
"Landon. Jake Landon."
"That's your alias today, Mr. Bond?" He smiled warmly, but I was rather proud of myself for performing some derring-do.
"I think I've got all the details, but what's your number if I need anything more?" He wrote it down and stuck the notebook into his pocket. "I'll see you round. There's a little pub that caters to the ski workers, not the tourists. Some of us get a beer there now and then. I could give you a call." He quirked an eyebrow, which disappeared into his hat.
"Thanks. I'm not much of a drinker, though." If the invitation was just friendly, and it included Kurt, then it might be nice to socialize with a group. We'd been hanging around home a lot since we'd come to Wapiti Creek because we weren't entirely clear on how to handle ourselves in public. Did we introduce each other as partners, roommates, friends? How out did we want to be?
Mark waved and skied down the hill, making it look like the easiest thing in the world. I headed back to the off-loading ramp and sat in a freshly emptied chair to get whirled around the big pulley and toted back down the hillside. On the way down, I considered the casual way Mark had basically asked me out. I wasn't used to that, by a long shot. He was as tall as I was and a lot more athletic, certainly more socially poised. Kind of good-looking, with brown hair long enough to escape his wool hat, and wide, sensuous lips. But he wasn't Kurt, so I didn't want anything more from him than some friendship.
On the trip down, I wondered if Kurt was worried about me looking elsewhere.