Reunited by a Secret Child

By: Leigh Bale

CHAPTER ONE

Wide, yellow ribbons fluttered among the cottonwoods bordering the north perimeter of the tarmac. The low hum of the prop plane’s engine escalated Reese Hartnett’s tension. Gazing out the small, oval window inside the plane, he gripped the armrests with tensed fingers. He’d been raised here, in the sleepy little town of Minoa, Nevada, but it wasn’t his home anymore. He had no family here now. No friends, either. But he didn’t know where else to go.

And honestly, he’d felt compelled to return. After what he’d been through, he longed to see his mom. If only she were still alive. Coming home was the best way to be close to her again. To go to the cemetery to pay his respects and apologize for hurting her when he’d left so unexpectedly.

He squinted as a spray of morning sunlight glinted against the metal siding of the hangar. Someone had tied a large hand-painted sign across the front of the building. He could easily make out the words: Welcome home. Our hero.

Reese knew the sign was for him. No doubt the media had put it up, staging a warm greeting in hopes of getting his story. He sure didn’t believe the people of this town had put up the sign. Not when they remembered his past history as a juvenile delinquent. Nor did he feel like a hero. Not when his entire hotshot crew had died two weeks earlier, fighting a wildfire in Colorado. Nineteen members of the Garlock Hotshot Crew should still be here with him. His buddies. Laughing and joking. Inseparable.

Because Reese had been the lone survivor, everyone considered him brave. But he wasn’t. He was just an ordinary man who happened to survive. Even now, he could see no logical reason why he had lived when all his friends had died. And every night, he hoped he’d awaken and it would all be a bad nightmare.

The plane jostled him out of his gloomy thoughts as it taxied across the concourse. He was late. He should have arrived in Minoa two days earlier, but he’d been delayed by the ongoing investigation. Forced to spend extra time answering questions at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. But he didn’t mind. The media was hunting for him and he’d been grateful for the opportunity to avoid them. The news report he’d seen on TV last night indicated they’d done their research and knew the name of his hometown. Since he hadn’t shown up in Minoa on schedule, they wouldn’t know where he was. They’d be confused. Searching for him elsewhere. He hoped.

He sat quietly, gazing at the black asphalt. The plane came to a bumping stop. A few more minutes, and the attendant opened the door. Releasing his seat belt, Reese stood and flipped open the overhead bin. He shouldered his duffel bag, then stepped off the plane. He’d left this monotonous town as soon as he’d graduated from high school. The next day, to be exact. And he hadn’t been home since. Eager for his freedom. Desperate to flee his father’s drunken rages. The only thing he missed about this place was his mother. She’d taught him about God and how to pray, but it never seemed to take. He’d never cared about the Lord…until recently.

He looked around at the barren desert that budged up against the narrow airport strip. Clumps of sage and rabbitbrush covered the landscape, punctuated by an occasional piñon or juniper tree. Farther out, Cove Mountain stood like a sentinel guarding the valley below. The Western United States had been having a severe drought. With his practiced eye, Reese could tell the region was prime for another wildfire. All this area needed was a single strike of lightning or a careless camper for the place to go up in flames. And that thought terrified Reese. Because he didn’t believe he could ever fight wildfires again. So what would he do to earn a living? He didn’t have a clue. Fighting wildfires was all he knew. The only thing he’d ever been good at.

Adjusting the weight of his heavy pack, he headed toward the hangar. In an airport this size, there was only one building. Ed Hayden, the caretaker, should be inside. There were no taxis or rental cars in this town, so Reese had called ahead to ask for a lift. Ed had agreed to drive him into town. Otherwise, Reese would just hoof it. As a hotshot, he’d hiked many miles through rugged terrain that would leave most men gasping. He was in prime physical condition and the five-mile walk would be easy. The solitude might do him some good, too.

Inside the hangar, he passed by a forklift and another prop plane. The heavy smell of fuel made him crinkle his nose.

“Hello? Is anyone here?” He paused to listen for a moment.

No one responded. A scuffling noise came from behind him. He turned. A woman stood silhouetted in the doorway leading out to the parking lot. Although her face was in shadow, his guard went up like a kite flying high. The words journalist and media flashed across his brain. He was so weary of being hounded for an interview that he’d become cynical and wary. Surely the reporters were no longer expecting him. Ed had told him that several journalists had been by every day, waiting for him. He’d hoped when he hadn’t shown up that they’d all left town.

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