Broken Promises – Conclusion
Nicki waited anxiously for Anne to arrive at their cabin. While she waited, she packed a cooler with drinks and sandwiches. Grabbing her backpack out of the closet, she remembered Dean had filled it for her when he showed her what essentials were needed for a hike in the wilderness. Unzipping the larger pocket, she rifled through it.
“The Garmin InReach, drinking tabs, water bladder, headlamp, extra batteries, and gloves, all here. Wait. Where are my poles?” she said out loud. She reached into the closet and blindly felt around until her hand hit two metal poles tucked in the back corner. “Don’t want to forget these.” Collapsing them, she slid them into the outside loops. In the smaller pocket, Dean had placed a first aid kit.
Nicki dressed in layers and grabbed an extra pair of wool socks. Her hiking boots laced, she was ready to help the volunteers locate her dogs and whoever was with them. Though it was spring, the backcountry still had ten feet of snow, maybe more, packing the trails.
The headlights of Anne’s Range Rover came barreling down the driveway. “You ready?” Anne said as she jumped out of the driver’s side.
“Help me with the cooler, open the back.” When Anne saw the Yeti cooler, she smiled. “Good thinking.”
Nicki opened the back door, threw her backpack onto the seat, and got into the passenger side. “Let’s go; we’re on a mission.”
Anne turned the Rover around, and they headed towards Denali. “I spoke with the Trooper in charge. He’s gathering a team of 20 for the first shift, which will start just before sun up. He’s got helicopters, the Air National Guard. He’s throwing everything he has into this search. He’s confident they’ll find him.”
“Find him?” Nicki looked over at Anne, who refused to take her eyes off the road. “Chuck is the hiker they found? Dean is the one missing with our two dogs?”
Nicki saw a trace of a tear fall from Anne’s eye. “Yes, honey. I’m so sorry.”
“Did you talk to Chuck? What did he say? How did this happen?”
“I spoke briefly to Chuck. He’s frantic. He needed to get back to the troopers to give them the coordinates of where he last saw Dean and the girls. He said the dogs took off down the wrong trail, and Dean went to find them. Since they both had maps, Dean told Chuck he’d catch up to him. Chuck waited a couple of hours, and Dean didn’t show up. He went back, but it started to snow and lost their tracks. His voice is hoarse from calling out to them. He pulled his Garmin and called 911. They found Chuck eight hours later. Dean never showed.”
Nicki sat silently, trying to absorb all she had been told. Her mind raced with horrible scenarios for all three of them. Her whole body was shaking as she tried to open the passenger door to vomit. Anne grabbed her arm. “What the hell are you doing?” She pulled the SUV over to the side of the road. Nicki jumped out, holding her stomach as she watched her dinner reappear like molten lava being released from a volcano. Anne gave her a tissue to wipe her mouth, and as Nicki bent over again, Anne held her hair out of the way. They both stood there, silent in their own thoughts. When Anne felt it was safe, she guided Nicki to the SUV’s back door, pushed the backpacks to the floor, and lay Nicki in the back seat. She gave her a pillow for her head and a blanket.
“You lay here, honey. I’ll get us there in no time.”
“Why, why, why?” Nicki, sobbing and rocking in the backseat, sat up suddenly, “Are we there yet? How much longer?” Nicki wasn’t aware of the plan.
“Almost, sweetie. Another thirty minutes or so.”
“That quick? How long have you been driving?”
“We’re headed to the airport to catch a helicopter. We’ll be there in no time.”
Nicki lay back down. “I’ve got to find them, all of them. I couldn’t live with myself if they aren’t found.” She thought about Pete’s brother. The not knowing would destroy her. She thought about praying but praying never helped her in the past.
“God damn you, God,” she yelled, looking up at the roof of the car. “I was happy for once in my life. Why did you have to ruin it for me? I hate you. I’ll always hate you if you don’t help me find them…Please?” she whimpered.
“Let’s think positive, Nicki. The first 24 hours are crucial. Dean has lots of friends who will be joining the search. He was well equipped for the weather. Please, don’t give up yet,” Anne pleaded.
“Easy for you to say. Your husband was found and is nice and warm, sitting in front of a fire. My Dean and my baby girls are lost in an unforgiving wilderness where it was three degrees last night.” The thought of them freezing to death all alone caused Nicki to start sobbing again.
Nicki saw the hurt in Anne’s eyes in the rearview mirror. In her mind, Nicki knew she should apologize, but the words wouldn’t form in her mouth.
Once they arrived at the airport, the lot attendant ushered them to the tarmac where a helicopter awaited them. A young man in an army uniform carried the cooler, and the two women grabbed their backpacks.
Anne sat across from Nicki, and they both stared out the window as they lifted off.
They landed outside of Denali, where a command post had been set up. There were 4-wheel drive Jeeps, large snowblowers, and three other helicopters, one equipped with a high-tech Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) scanner. The highly-trained crew from the Alaska National Guard was on standby. A FLIR is designed to make warm bodies, otherwise invisible, appear magically on a screen displaying blue and red images. The technology is sophisticated enough to detect a North Slope polar bear sleeping in a den beneath the snow.
Men were running around instructing others what to look for and what station to be on with what looked like walkie talkies. A man wearing a face mask approached Nicki. He put his arms around her, giving her a hug. It was Paul, the man whose brother had gone missing many years ago.
“We’ll find him. We have the best equipment out there. He knows what to do to stay alive.”
“I want to come along. I want to help find my husband and my dogs.”
“Maybe later. We need you here for now.” Paul joined a group of ten men as they headed out with headlamps.
A State Trooper appeared by her side. “Are you family?”
“Yes, I’m Dean’s wife.”
“Good, I need you to come with me.” He gently touched her elbow and guided her up the stairs of the command center.
As the door opened, a warm blast of air hit her face.
“Nicki,” Chuck walked over to her. His cheeks were so red they looked as if he had a bad sunburn. “I never should have let him go alone to look for the dogs. I should have insisted, but he said they couldn’t have gotten far. We both knew better than to leave each other alone. I…I… don’t know what to say.”
Nicki sat down on a chair the State Trooper had provided for her.
“I want to go out there. I want to help search for Dean.”
“Let’s leave it to the professionals. If they haven’t found him in a few days, they’ll call off the search. And then we can get our own search party together and continue looking. He had enough food for at least another week. He’s tough, honey.” Chuck patted her hand.
Looking down at Chuck’s hand, Nicki wished it was Dean. She pulled it away as if she had been shocked. She turned her attention to the communications coming over the radio as each team checked in with their coordinates.
Three days of searching came up with nothing—no warm bodies on the FLIR scanner, no dog tracks, no food wrappers. Dean and the dogs had vanished into thin air, leaving no evidence they had ever been out there.
The odds were not good; Dean was still alive, according to the professionals. The weather had gone from bad to worse. The helicopters couldn’t go up on the third day, and the foot searchers were having a difficult time due to the amount of snowfall.
With Chuck and Anne by her side, Nicki told the troopers to call it. Loud groans could be heard within the groups of teams. Some wanted to stay, and they were welcome to do so at their own risk.
Chuck told some of the guys they would form their own search team but needed to get fresh supplies. Some of the villagers who had come out to help offered to let them use their dwellings to rest up and re-supply. They incorporated the help of a tracker.
Halfway into the week, one of the search teams came across paw tracks. They took a picture and sent it to the tracker. He was certain it was a paw track but wanted to go out there to look for other signs. He suggested Nicki meet him out there.
As he looked around, he pulled some white fur off of a branch. He showed it to Nicki. “That’s Sadie! Bailey’s fur is more reddish.” Nicki’s hope was revived. Two weeks and this was the first positive news they had gotten. As the tracker followed the prints, he noticed some were tinged with pink against the white snow. Frostbite was causing the paws to bleed. Not a good sign, especially if the dog becomes tired and decides to lie down. It could freeze to death.
The tracker, certain the prints were fresh, continued following. A mile out, he blew a whistle. He found Sadie curled up under some brush. She had dug a hole in hopes of getting warm. As he approached her, she just whimpered, tail thumping ever so slightly. Picking her up gently, he carried her the mile back to where Nicki was waiting, talking softly to her. He knew if he hadn’t found her, she would have died that night.
Nicki started to cry when she saw the tracker carrying Sadie. She was thinner than she had been, but she was alive. Laying her down on the mylar blanket, Nicki smothered her with hugs, rubs, and kisses. If only she could talk.
They brought her water and a few treats. Paul placed her in the all-terrain vehicle back seat, and they headed back to their base camp.
That night, it was decided to call off the search. The next time they would go out would be in the middle of summer, just a few short months away. They all knew they would be looking for bodies, one human, one animal.
They never found Dean or Bailey, nor did they find any of Dean’s possessions. His backpack and gun lost. They joined the thousands of others who went out on an adventure never to be seen again.
Nicki left the cabin and moved to Montana. If somehow Dean was still alive, maybe he’d make his way back to it. She left the unopened letters on the desk along with one other, and her new address on the chalkboard, just in case.
My darling Dean,
You will have much to explain when we meet again. I don’t take kindly to broken promises, especially from someone I love with all my heart. I don’t know how I will go on not knowing what happened to you, but I have Sadie to help me through my grief. Guess I’ll be taking it one day at a time. All my love, forever. (I promise!)