David C. Cook
RAIN PELTED THE SIDES OF THE AIRPLANE HANGAR AS ETHAN Carlisle loaded the last box of food into the tail of the sturdy Helio Courier. This bird had been hopping between the seven thousand Philippine Islands for more than thirty years, and it showed. Ethan had passed the rigorous training necessary to fly in the mountains of north central Luzon, but he’d never get a chance to take her up if the weather didn’t relent.
He slammed the cockpit door shut and walked across the hangar to look outside. The palm trees lining the airfield sagged from the downpour. The sky glowed an eerie green.
He knew God wanted him in the Philippines, but if God didn’t taper this storm, the two weeks he’d set aside to fly supplies to the region’s remote villages would be a waste.
John, the supervisor for the mission operation out of Bagabag, walked up behind him and handed him a Styrofoam cup.
“How do you usually celebrate the New Year?” John asked as he looked out the hangar’s door.
“With chips and salsa and a marathon of board games with a couple friends.”
John nodded toward the airfield. “We may be having our own New Year’s Eve party in the hangar tonight.”
“I won’t last until midnight.”
“Go get some rest.” John pointed to a small lobby at the side of the hangar. “Everyone’s grounded until this afternoon, maybe tomorrow.”
Ethan took a sip of the muddy coffee. “How long do you think it will last?”
“One of the missionaries called in this morning from a village north of here and said they had clear skies, but the radio’s been down for an hour.”
A gust of wind shook the hangar, bending the palms like they were rubber.
“Isn’t this supposed to be the dry season?”
“We get storms all year.” John saluted the weather with his cup.
“We’ll pray that it clears up in the next few hours.”
Ethan squinted into the hazy sky and saw something dark move in the distance. “Is that a plane?”
John took a step forward as the black spot evolved into a Cessna 182. He groaned. “She knows better!”
Ethan watched the single-engine plane turn and dip toward the runway.
“The woman never listens …” John mumbled as he raced outside.
Ethan stepped out under the awning as he watched the Cessna battle the wind. The plane teetered and shook as it descended and then bumped twice before it landed on the runway and taxied toward the hangar. He followed John toward the plane.
The second the propeller blades wound down, the pilot jumped out. She wore a tan T-shirt under denim overalls, and her honey brown hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail. The rain streaked dirt down her forehead and arms.
She pointed back into the front seat. “We’ve got to get her to the hospital.”
John ran up to her, his hair and jacket soaked. “I told you to stay in Reauca until this storm blew over.”
Ethan heard a woman scream inside the Cessna, and then he heard a furious chorus of clucking.
“Dr. Andrews said this woman and her baby will die if she doesn’t have an emergency C-section.”
The woman screamed again, and Ethan peered into the open door.
A pregnant woman was clutching her abdomen, contorting in pain. And the tail of the plane was filled with crates of angry chickens.
The pilot glanced into the hangar and then turned toward John.
“Did I mention she’s going to die?”
“Call an ambulance,” John yelled to one of the maintenance workers.
The pilot jumped back inside the Cessna and helped the groaning woman climb out. A mechanic rushed a wheelchair into the storm, and the four of them lifted her into it. The mechanic battled the wind as he pushed her into the hangar and covered her shoulders with a blanket.
Ethan turned back to John.
“I need fuel,” the pilot said.
John stepped between her and the plane. “Oh no, you don’t.”
“And a box of antivenom serum.”
“A cobra bit an eight-year-old boy this morning.”
“And yet you brought a plane full of chickens instead.”
“He was too sick to fly.”
“I’ll try to radio Dr. Andrews and tell him you’ll return when the weather clears.”
She planted both hands on her hips. “The boy won’t make it.”
“I’m worried about you making it.”
“He’s eight, John!”
John looked as if he was about to strangle her.
“It’s only a twenty-minute flight.”
He lowered his voice as he stepped toward her. “These are high stakes you’re playing.”
“It’s worth the risk.”
John turned and rushed toward the hangar. “Get me the fuel truck!”
Leia pulled a crate of chickens out of the tail, the birds squawking as rain drenched their feathers. She climbed back into the plane, and when she emerged with another crate, she glanced down at the first crate still on the ground and then back at Ethan. “We need to get them inside before they drown.”
“Got it.” He wrapped his fingers around the thin slats of wood, but when he picked up the crate, a chicken pecked him, and the box crashed on the asphalt.
He looked up at Leia, and she rolled her eyes. “You have to pick it up from bottom.”
“Right.”He carried the four crates inside the hangar and lined the angry chickens up against the wall.
A pickup truck with an aluminum tank pulled up beside the plane, and Leia pulled out the nozzle to start fueling. John walked out into the rain with a plastic bag, opened the door of the plane, and set it inside.
He nodded toward her. “It’s the serum.”
She planted the nozzle back into the flatbed and rushed into the hangar, two steps in front of John. Ethan looked out at the driving sheet of rain and then at the pilot.
“I’ll go with her,” he volunteered to John.
She glared at him as she signed the paperwork to release the serum. “Who’s this?”
“It’s his first day.” John flung his hands between them. “Leia, meet Ethan Carlisle. Ethan, this is our rogue pilot, Leia Vaughn.”
Ethan stepped forward and held out his hand. She shook it warily, and then he followed her out to the plane. When she climbed into the pilot’s seat, he opened the door to the other side. He was used to the routine—he’d been nursing second seat since he was twenty-four.
“I’ll fly with you—”
He hopped into the plane. “In case you need help …”
“I won’t need any help,” Leia insisted.
“… with the kid.”
Apparently she didn’t want to waste time arguing. She turned the plane as he buckled his seat belt.
Then she took off into the storm, the Cessna shaking and howling against the wind as they flew out of Bagabag. Ethan clenched the door handle like it was a parachute cord as they disappeared into the clouds.
“You know where all the mountaintops are, right?” he asked.
“I’ve got a pretty good idea.”
He turned his head to stare at her. “Do you have a death wish?”
“We’ll be fine if we die, but I’m not sure about the boy.”
“It’s why we do this, isn’t it?” The plane broke through a cloud and into the clear blue. “John’s just blowing smoke. He’s flown through worse a hundred times when someone called for help.”
“Do you always fly with poultry?” he asked.
“They’re payment for the woman’s surgery.”
His fingers wound tighter around the handle as the plane bounced in the turbulence. “I hope the surgeon likes eggs.”
“He’ll trade them for something else.”
“Do you think the woman will be okay?”
Leia banked left, flying toward a ridge of imposing mountains. “She should make it to the hospital in time, but there’s no guarantee.”
Sprawled below them were miles of rigorous jungle, and a river snaked through the dense mangrove forest. They flew by a waterfall cascading into a clear pool. Nearby, lime-colored rice terraces stairstepped up a mountainside.
She pointed toward the water. “It’s the Chico River.”
“Gorgeous.” He released his hold on the handle. “How long have you been flying over here?”
“I’ve volunteered between Christmas and New Year’s for the past five years.” Her blue eyes glazed for an instant. “How long are you going to be here?”
“Two weeks. I just got hired by Ambassador Air, so I’m starting my new job at the end of the month.”
“Good company.” Leia turned the plane north. “You’re … what? Twenty-eight? Twenty-nine?”
“Just turned thirty.”
“Someday I’m going to fly with the majors.”
He believed her. “Where do you work now?”
“At Corporate Direct. I fly charters.”
“Out of Denver?”
She glanced over at him. “That’s right.”
“I just moved to Denver.”
They were flying directly toward a mountain.
“Don’t you think you better…” he started, pointing toward the crags.
She buzzed the rocky top, missing the summit by fifty feet. “You like mountains?”
He wiped the sweat off his face. “I prefer to ski on them.”
“Then you’ll love Colorado.”
She pointed toward a mountain in front of them. “That’s where we’re going.”
He leaned forward in his seat but didn’t see an airfield. “Where?”
He squinted until he saw what looked like a thin piece of sandpaper that had been carved out of the mountainside. Their landing strip. If she didn’t hit the crude runway just right, they’d plunge down into the valley. It would probably be days before someone found them. He started to say something about the shoddy-looking strip, but her eyes had creased into slits, her gaze boring through the window. She dropped the flaps as they descended; the plane smacked the runway.
They bumped over the field of rocks—wheels rattling as if they were skating across marbles—before they screeched to a halt. Ethan opened his eyes and saw the edge of the runway fifteen feet in front of them.
“It’s a breeze.” She flashed him a confident smile, but he saw her hands shake. She was blowing a little smoke herself. She killed the engine as a crowd of natives ran toward the plane.
“Let’s get this medicine to the doctor.”
Ethan released his grip on the door and jumped out. A man with a safari hat covering most of his blond hair ran up to Leia. Dr. Andrews.
“I knew you’d come back.” When the doctor hugged her, it didn’t look as if he was going to let go.
Ethan stepped up beside them and cleared his throat. “Excuse me.”
Dr. Andrews released his hold as Leia turned toward him.
Ethan waved his thumb toward the plane. “Isn’t this an emergency?”
Four villagers brought the boy up the hill on a stretcher as Leia retrieved the box of antivenom from the plane. Ethan lifted the child and cradled him in his arms like a baby. As the doctor administered the serum, Ethan prayed softly that God would spare the boy’s life.