Adventures of Cookie the Stray, Chapter 26
Friends in Low Places
The unmistakable odor of rot and decay wafted up as the chief descended the basement stairs. A single light bulb dangled from a cord below the floor joists casting eerie shadows across the dank room. Old clothes, torn blankets and a collection of discarded items lined the walls in towering piles. The odor grew stronger as he reached the bottom step.
“Over here, Chief.” The uniformed officer pointed to a cleared area of concrete about two feet wide and five feet long that appeared lighter than the rest of the slate gray floor. His flashlight beam moved over to an area piled with empty cement bags held down by a flat-blade shovel covered in dried cement.
“What d’ya’ make of that?” the officer asked.
“Looks like we’re going to need a jackhammer and a few strong men,” the Chief said rubbing his chin.
A rescue party gathered in the hangar at the small airstrip north of the crash site. Volunteers from surrounding counties had assembled in a group ready to assist the first responders attempting the dangerous cliff-side rescue. A command structure was established and duties assigned.
“We’ll drop the first two men down right here,” the commander said pointing to a spot on a map above and to the side of the crash site. “They’ll make their way over to the craft to check for survivors. Then, we’ll secure the plane to make sure it stays put.” Two helicopters waited on the tarmac ready to take off. Inside each, a pile of ropes, lift harnesses, pick axes, medical supplies, stretchers and other gear was stashed. One chopper held the Jaws of Life borrowed from the Fire Department to split open the Beechcraft door if necessary. The team took their designated places as the whomp, whomp, whomp of the rotors lifted the craft heading into the distance with a purpose.
Twenty minutes later they circled above the upturned aircraft. Two lines dropped out of the open door as volunteers rappelled down toward the ground. Both wore heavy duty boots, helmets and communication gear. The first one to touch down sunk ankle deep into the mud. He sloshed over to stabilize his partner, then, with a circling hand motion, signaled the pilot to drop the equipment. The two men made their way closer to the downed Beechcraft one careful step at a time.
Jeb stirred at the noise the helicopters were making as they hovered over the site. His face was an ugly shade of red from being suspended upside down for so long. He felt dizzy as he watched two people in bulky gear trek ever so slowly toward him.
Connie and Eleanor pulled into the parking lot of the skilled nursing home where William had spent the previous two months.
“Will you come inside with me to meet my husband?” Eleanor asked after Connie shut off the engine. “He may not say too much, but believe me, he’s still aware of his surroundings.”
“Sure,” Connie said with a bravado she didn’t actually feel. She felt a certain amount of awkwardness about the visit. Nursing homes always reminded her of the finite and temporary nature of life; something as a young woman she tried not to think about too much.
Rusty was up to his elbows in grease bent over the old Chevy in the barn. He’d already switched out the spark plugs, replaced the spark plug wires, changed out the distributor and was about to pour gasoline into the freshly drained fuel tank. Rusty’s morning had included more conversation than usual as he filled out paperwork for the electricity, the water and picked up a chainsaw at Lindsey Lumber where he’d ordered a new window.
In the quiet of the early afternoon, he heard twigs snapping as a car rolled down the driveway. Rusty stopped what he was doing and walked toward the house wiping his hands on a red rag. Peering through the windshield of the car was a large furry face squeezed in between the driver and passenger, an older version of the man in Eleanor’s yellowed photos.
“Can you help us get the wheelchair out of the trunk, Rusty?” Eleanor asked through the open window as she pulled the car to a stop. Queenie moved quickly to fill Eleanor’s empty spot, a big doggy grin on her face as the woman got out. The door behind the driver’s seat opened and Connie climbed slowly out and stood by the car. On the back seat where she’d been sitting, Dolly and Jeff stood at the edge of their box and peered out.
“Hello stranger,” Connie said, her sultry voice stopping Rusty in his tracks. He froze in place while a chorus of barking erupted from the barn door. Four dogs awakened from a nap when the car pulled onto the property now stood guard at a distance. When the front passenger door creaked open, Buddy bounded straight towards the man seated in the front seat.
“Hello boy!” William said tears of joy welling up in his eyes. Buddy washed them away plastering sloppy wet kisses over his master’s face.
Rusty took note that the years had been kind to Connie transforming her from the teenager he remembered into a stunning, self-confident woman. He self-consciously moved his greasy hands behind him as they stood beside the car. Whimpers of joy drifted from the front seat where William hugged his long lost friend that tried eagerly to crawl into his master’s lap.
“Down, boy,” William commanded. “We’ll have lots of time to catch up.” Buddy sat down instantly next to the door, eager to obey his master. Rover looked on from a safe distance as the reunion progressed with Cookie and Nicole shyly watching from behind him.
Rusty continued toward the trunk and lifted out the wheelchair. He rolled it next to William’s open door. Buddy moved aside only far enough to allow access keeping his man clearly in view.
“William,” Eleanor announced from the front of the car, “This is Rusty that I’ve told you so much about.” William reached out with a ready handshake as Rusty offered first his hand then his arm for support. With his other hand firmly on the door frame, William expertly transferred into the waiting chair.
“Pleased to meet you and thanks,” he said. “I’ve heard a lot about you.” Rusty maneuvered the chair over the rough gravel toward the porch stairs. Buddy marched beside the arm of the chair nudging William’s hand with his nose as they moved forward.
“Looks like we’ll need to make some minor adjustments to get you situated,” Rusty said.
“No need,” he said. “I’ll be rid of this thing in no time.” He pushed up on the arms of the wheelchair and hoisted himself up. With William’s arm draped over Rusty’s shoulder and Connie taking the other side, the trio cautiously mounted the front steps. William stood holding the porch railing as Rusty carried the chair up the stairs
He resumed his seat and rolled around on the wide porch inspecting Rusty’s work. Neatly stacked beside the porch was a pile of cut tree limbs split into quarters for the wood burning stove. The broken window was covered with a patchwork of neatly matched barn wood attached to the window by a frame of two-by-fours.
“The replacement window is on order at Lindsey Lumber,” Rusty told William. “Bobby Lee sends his greetings.”
“Eleanor was right,” William said, smiling. “You have a lot of promise as a carpenter.” Eleanor beamed with joy as they moved through the open front door with William leading the way.
Two hours later a pile of broken concrete pieces lay on the basement floor next to a growing pile of dirt. A burly man wearing leather gloves stood knee deep in the hole shoveling out dirt as the odor in the confined room grew pungent. With the next scoop of dirt, an edge of blue plastic tarp glowed in the floodlights aimed at the hole. The Chief nodded at the digger to lift the edge.
“Looks like we’ve found the missing Olsteads,” the chief said with a frown.
Rescue workers peered into the hull of the overturned craft. A series of ropes had been secured to the body of the Beechcraft to prevent it sliding further down the mountain. The helicopter had lowered the Jaws of Life down to the wreckage on a harness with the stretcher. Rescue workers began prying open the crushed aft door which was no longer functioning. Surrounding the Beechcraft Twin King, a team of volunteers held onto the stretcher waiting for their peers to pull out the survivor.
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© 2018 Peg Cole