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Rainier University's hiking club was surprisingly active.
Some students were busy having an active social life, partying and then scrambling at the last minute to cram enough into their heads to get a passing grade; others were grimly studying, too determined to succeed to spare the time to relax. But there was also a surprising number who, while wanting to do well academically, also wanted to keep fit, to enjoy themselves without the... well, constant physical drain of late night party-going and too much to drink.
For at least some of them, the hiking club was ideal.
The club had been started years previously by Dr. Stoddard, after the first time he - as a recently-appointed lecturer in anthropology - had taken some of his students on an expedition. It had been a relatively simple, not - in his opinion - particularly strenuous trip, aimed at giving the students a taste of what work in the field was like; he had intended it to consist of a two-day walk-in to visit a tribe that was in so much contact with the white man they had cheerfully, and without apparent culture shock, adopted many of the trappings of 'civilisation'; a week there, and a two-day walk out. Stoddard's game plan had been to let his students see this, and then, on their return to Rainier, debate whether exposing what was basically a stone age tribe to a technological culture was a good or a bad thing.
Things fell apart almost at once. Although the students had all thought of themselves as being fit, fully half of the them had been unable to cover the thirty mile, fifteen-miles-a-day trek through a rain forest with no obvious paths in two days - they simply hadn't realized how tiring carrying fifty-pound backpacks could be. The walk in had taken three days. The five days spent with the tribe had been successful enough, although again the less fit students were unable to participate in all the activities Stoddard had planned.
They had arrived a day late; they left a day early, and it was late on the third day before an exhausted party stumbled back to their waiting transport - even the fit ones were tired from helping the weaker ones. Stoddard had even hired some of the tribe to carry packs - it was a useful income for them - to ease the walk out; but despite that, several of his party were close to collapse by the time they returned to civilisation.
On his return to Rainier, he had quietly put up a notice telling the students that he was organizing a number of hiking trips in the Cascade National Forest, and telling anyone interested to contact him. Within days someone had suggested forming a hiking club, with regular, round-the-year walks.
Membership of the club was not a prerequisite for being accepted to go on one of Stoddard's summer expeditions, and not all of the members were anthropology students, though most were; and any anthropology students who weren't members, but went on one of the expeditions and proved to be less than completely fit, soon discovered that their peers had little sympathy for them.
Even after Stoddard quit lecturing to concentrate on longer expeditions than he could manage during the summer breaks, the club continued. It became a matter of honor for the Stoddard's replacement, who now organized the meets, to find new and challenging walks, until at last he handed the responsibility over to a small committee of TAs.
Blair Sandburg had been an enthusiastic member of the club almost from the day he went to Rainier as a sixteen-year-old freshman until he began riding with Jim Ellison. By the time his warehouse home blew up he had learned that life as a police observer combined with his responsibilities as a TA left him little time for purely leisure activities, and he had reluctantly allowed his membership of the club to lapse. Any hiking he now did was with Jim on one of their rare weekends off - although Jim had the seniority to officially have most weekends off, it was surprising how many of them he lost through following up leads, not all of them fruitful - and most of Blair's weekends were spent catching up with university work.
So he was slightly surprised when, in late March, Bobby Andrews, the current president of the club, asked him, as a favor, to go along with them on their April meet.
"I haven't been out with the club for nearly two years," he protested, although in some ways he felt it would be nice to go out with it again.
"I know, but Blair, you're the only one I can ask." He began a rundown on the other TAs who were 'seniors' in the club. "Chad Holbrook and Rex Shaffer are off sick. Rob Mann has family commitments that weekend that he can't duck out of though I know he'd like to, and Johnny Lucas, from the Maths department, is on a tight deadline for a paper he's submitting. He'd come if the alternative was calling it off, but that might make the difference between getting his paper done in time and not - and you know what Prof. Winkler thinks of people having hobbies outside their immediate field of study." He grinned wryly. "I doubt Winkler has walked any distance further than from his bedroom to the bathroom for the past forty years... Between you and me, he's due to retire next summer, and I don't think anyone will be sorry to see him go. Sally Wallace is pregnant - "
"She is? I thought she and Larry had decided to wait another three or four years to start a family?"
"Yes, they had, but apparently they weren't careful enough. Anyway, she's in her fourth month, but she nearly lost the kid a month ago and the doctor's advised her to avoid strenuous exercise. That leaves just me, Silvie Dupras and Maddy Klein as leaders. I know some of the members are very experienced, old enough to... well, resent being considered not responsible, especially since by now they are, but with the number going on this meet, for insurance purposes we've got to have at least one more person from the teaching staff."
"By now?" Blair asked.
Bobby grinned. "Well, you know what it's like. In the first few months of the academic year there are always one or two who clown around, take unnecessary risks to show off to the girls - or girls who play dumb and incompetent to bring out the protective instinct in a man. Inside the club, they mostly either quieten down or quit by Christmas; the boys discover that the girls in the club are more impressed by the guys who know what they're doing, don't take risks and can be depended on to get everyone safely home if anything happened to the leaders, or that the men aren't fooled by the 'helpless' act."
"Yeah, I remember one girl like that," Blair said. "It was a year or so before your time - at the start of my sophomore year. It was obvious that she'd only come to Rainier to find a husband, preferably one who was looking at a career that would earn him big bucks. The moment anything in pants showed up she turned into a helpless weakling desperate for a big, strong man to help her. She came along on a day meet, a straight hike from A to B, thinking that there was bound to be someone who'd feel flattered to be considered... well, a knight in shining armor helping a poor weak female. Anyone could have told her that if she went out with the club she needn't expect to be given much leeway - that any of us would help someone who was trying to manage but genuinely struggling, but none of us had any sympathy for someone who wouldn't even try. The bus dropped us off then went on to the pickup point. Her first words were, 'Who's going to carry my backpack for me?' The leaders told her she needn't expect anyone else to carry double weight - even though we only had day packs which weren't that heavy - while she had two legs in perfectly good working order. In the end, when it became obvious that she wasn't going to give in and carry it herself, one of the other girls took the pack, purely, she said, to avoid leaving litter on the mountain."
"And then she lagged the entire way, meaning that one of the leaders had to stay with her to make sure she did get safely back. In hindsight, I've a feeling that Eli - Dr. Stoddard - suspected she was annoyed enough by not getting a 'big strong man' to look out for her, that if one of the male leaders stayed with her, she might try accusing him of sexual harassment by way of revenge, so he assigned the task to one of the female leaders. Once we got back to Rainier, he told her not to bother coming out with the club again. I don't think she meant to, anyway."
"I've never had one that bad," Bobby said.
"I've seen a few female students whose main aim in life seemed to be to find a husband, but she was definitely the worst," Blair agreed. "All right, exactly where are you going?"
Bobby produced a map from a surprisingly deep pocket. As he opened it, he said, "We leave Friday night, and have a two-hour walk in to the first campsite - here." He indicated a spot on the map. Saturday, we move on to the second campsite here, then on Sunday we head back to the road here; we should reach the road by early afternoon. The bus will be waiting from noon, though I don't expect we'll get there before about two."
Blair nodded as he checked the route. He knew both campsites, and at least part of the trail between them. It wasn't an easy hike, but it wasn't as difficult as it might have been; in the days when he'd gone out regularly, it was a route he'd have classified as moderate - difficult enough, if only because of the length and the amount of height the path gained, to stretch newcomers to the club, not as hard as would discourage them - or at least the keen ones. It was the sort of route that, earlier in the academic year, would separate out the sheep from the lambs, and make the less keen ones think twice about whether they wanted to continue going out with the club. For a spring meet, it was a challenge, but not too much of one.
"Okay, I'll see what Jim is doing that weekend, and if he doesn't need me for anything, I'll come."
In some ways the club was like a conveyor belt, Blair decided as he got out of the truck on Friday evening - Jim had driven him to Rainier because he had been at the PD all afternoon - and looked around the gathered students. In the two years since he dropped out of involvement with the club, many of the people Blair had known in it had graduated and moved away from Cascade. Not that the new members were all strangers; but his relationship with those of them who were anthropology students was that of teacher and pupil, and it created a subtle space between him and them. Not that there hadn't been something of a space developing in the years since he'd become a TA, but somehow the two years since he started working with the police, since he stopped going out regularly with the club, created a sort of hurdle that made the younger students see him as one hundred percent lecturer rather than a fellow student, albeit a post-grad student who also lectured. As they boarded the bus, it was with a wry amusement he realized that he found it impossible to put into words just what the difference was, but it was definitely there.
The bus left Rainier at 5 pm. As it started off he waved goodbye to Jim, then leaned back in his seat relaxing, only half registering the cheerful chatter that filled the bus. After two or three minutes, Bobby, who had been double-checking everyone, joined him. "We have a good group here," he said. "None of the clowns signed up for this trip - though of course, I didn't expect them to. We can all relax and enjoy the walk."
"That's good," Blair said. He was already wondering what Bobby would have said if he had asked if Jim could come along too; and if Jim would have accepted the invitation.
Jim was feeling slightly depressed as he drove home. It would have been churlish, not to say childish, to have claimed that he needed Blair for the weekend, but by the time he pulled in at 852 Prospect he was wishing he had. A rare free weekend loomed, long, lonely and boring.
He was tempted to push some gear into a pack and call Simon to drive him to Blair's starting point and follow the Rainier club, joining them at their first camp, but he pushed the urge firmly back into the deep recesses of his mind. Blair deserved a couple of days away, mixing with his academic peers; good friends though they were, Blair didn't need his older roomie tagging along as if he didn't trust the younger man to survive a weekend without him. Jim firmly reminded himself that Blair had managed just fine without him for twenty-odd years; managed just fine virtually on his own for the ten years since he started at Rainier until he found his sentinel. Blair might be happy to spend most of his time with Jim, but he didn't need Jim chasing after him.
In the privacy of his thoughts, Jim admitted that if he were to follow Blair, it was because he needed Blair; not because he thought Blair needed him. But would Blair realize that? Could Jim humble himself enough to admit it? He wasn't sure that he could. And so he resolutely prepared a meal he didn't really want, then settled down in front of the television, watching a program he didn't really want to see, to eat it.
Forty-seven hours. In just forty-seven interminable hours he would have his friend home again.
The bus pulled into the parking area at the start of the track leading to the first campsite; it was with some surprise that Blair saw there were no cars there. It looked as if they would have the place to themselves. The driver pulled rucksacks from the luggage compartment; the students claimed their packs and gathered, waiting for Bobby's lead.
With all the packs claimed, Bobby exchanged a few words with the driver, then turned to his party. "All right, guys," he said. That a third of the 'guys' were girls didn't matter; they all knew he wasn't being sexist. On a hike like this none of these girls expected to be treated as anything other than 'one of the lads'. "You all know the drill; it'll be dark before we reach the campsite, and once it gets dark, if you use a flashlight, shine it on the ground so you don't dazzle anyone. I don't expect any of you to have a problem, but if you do, yell. Blair, will you please bring up the rear; if you find anyone is lagging too badly, let me know and I'll slow down. Okay, everyone; let's go."
The group spread out, with some fifty or sixty yards between Bobby, in the lead, and Blair. It was cloudy, but a moon a little more than half occasionally showed between the clouds, and even when it was hidden its light would keep the night from being too dark.
As the light faded, one of the older students dropped back to walk beside Blair. "Hi, Mr. Sandburg. I'm Gavin Hawk."
"Hello, Gavin," Blair said. He didn't recognize the name, so this wasn't an anthropology student. "Call me Blair. What's your subject?"
Gavin grinned. "Languages."
"Languages? How many?"
"Spanish, French, Italian, Mandarin, Russian - there are good career prospects for someone who's fluent in Mandarin or Russian nowadays - and I've a smattering of a few others."
"I speak Spanish quite well, but I only just get by in French, Italian and Russian. And German. I've a smattering of a few other languages too, but mostly just the two or three hundred very simple words a very young child has. You working for your Masters?"
"Yes. I'm hoping to do a comparison of vocabulary for my thesis - try and trace migration patterns of peoples in prehistory through language."
"Planning on going for a PhD eventually?"
"I'm not sure. Depends on what the job prospects are two or three months from now, and how good a job I can get without one."
"Yeah, you can reach a stage when cramming more and more knowledge into your head gets old, and you really want a paycheck," Blair agreed. "What brings you out hiking?"
"I enjoy the exercise. I was never one for team games - I don't like the competitiveness."
"Well, yes, you could call team games a form of stylised warfare," Blair said thoughtfully. "Just because they're called *games* and they're supposed to be recreational... like at one time, rather than have everyone fighting, a battle could be decided by single combat between two champions. Saved a lot of bloodshed."
"Exactly," Gavin said. "Or counting coup. But hiking - something where you're challenging yourself, where your only opponent is Nature - that's different. As long as you respect Nature, and remember that unless you do, Nature will always win. And coming out sometimes with a group, like this - you're co-operating with each other, not trying to do better than everyone else."
They chatted companionably as the party continued along the trail.
After a little more than two hours, they reached the camp site. They spread out, putting up tents, and from the grouping of the tents it was easy to see the social spread of the party. The leaders put their tents close together; Gavin, Blair noticed, had his tent on its own but not too far from the leader group. Or was it not too far from Blair? It was odd that the younger man had chosen to walk at the rear with him, Blair thought - not that he was sorry to have had the company. But did it mean that Gavin had no actual friends in the club? Could be. Three-quarters of the party were students Blair recognized from having them, or having had them, in his classes. The remaining dozen came from all the other departments. If Gavin was the only languages student present, even if he went out regularly with the club the odds were that he was considered to be a friendly acquaintance, but not a friend, by the others. Probably he thought of them the same way; the way he had spoken, he didn't necessarily go out every time the club did. He had struck Blair as being a loner. But even a loner feels like company occasionally, which probably explained why he had joined Blair.
Each social group inside the party prepared its own food. Gavin, although he had camped close to the leaders, ate alone and immediately disappeared into his tent.
Blair glanced at Bobby. "Gavin come out much with you?" he asked softly.
"About half the time," Bobby replied as quietly "He's a loner - "
"That was what I thought," Blair agreed.
"Doesn't mix much, though he's not stand-offish about it. Any of the others speak to him, he's quite happy to chat with them, but you always get the feeling of a... well, a ring of thorns around him, keeping everyone from getting too close."
"Could he be being defensive because he's native American?" Blair asked.
"Ah, you realized that. I don't think so. He doesn't make a big thing of it but he doesn't try to hide it, either. Actually his mother was white, but his parents died in an accident when he was still very young, and he grew up with his grandparents on a reservation."
"It was something he said, about respecting nature because nature always wins. Your average white man tends to forget that he can't beat the forces of nature."
Bobby laughed. "Like building cities near volcanoes and then being surprised and blaming the government when the damn thing erupts."
"Yeah, like that. And then insisting that 'the government should be doing something to stop the lava destroying our homes'. Anyway, I didn't feel that he was trying to keep me at a distance."
"Interesting. But let's face it, Blair, you accept everyone - you're the most non-judgemental person I know."
"Oh, I've got my prejudices the same as everyone," Blair said. "They're just not the usual ones that most people have."
"In that case, I'd say you were inclined to be prejudiced in someone's favor, not prejudiced against them," Bobby told him.
Blair just smiled.
During the night, the clouds thickened, and in the morning the weather was looking surprisingly threatening.
Over breakfast, Bobby glanced up at the sky. "The forecast didn't say so, but I think we're going to get wet."
"We go fairly high, don't we?" Blair asked.
"We're above five thousand feet for a mile or so at the highest point of the trail," Bobby said.
"If it rains, that's probably high enough for us to get snow instead," Blair pointed out. "Are we equipped for snow?"
"Not really, but hey, Blair, it's a well-marked trail and at this time of year we're not likely to get serious snow. I checked with the Ranger Service before we left, and there's no snow lying under the seven thousand mark. It's April, dammit, and the temperature this past week has been in the mid to high fifties. So it'll drop a little as we get higher, but I wouldn't think it'll drop enough for snow."
"I'll accept your assessment," Blair said, "but reluctantly. I don't like taking the risk - not when we're responsible for four dozen students."
"Oh, come on, Blair - I never thought you were one to back off the moment conditions looked less than perfect," Bobby told him. "If it rains we get wet; we won't melt."
Blair shook his head. "Bobby, you're experienced enough to know that conditions in the mountains can change between one minute and the next. You were the one who spoke about the guys who take unnecessary risks. Don't let macho pride turn you into one of them."
Bobby looked thoughtful for a moment, but then he said, "Blair, you've given me your opinion, and I respect you for that. I honestly don't think there's any risk, though. The forecast is for continuing mild temperatures. Okay, rain wasn't forecast, but everyone here knows to bring wet weather gear and a change of clothes. It won't be as pleasant a hike as I'd hoped for, but I really don't see us having a problem."
"Okay," Blair said. "You're the boss." But as he turned away, he cast one more worried look at the sky, mentally crossed his fingers and hoped that he was worrying unnecessarily.
It was still dry as everyone packed up and took down their tents. They fell in behind Bobby, Blair once again bringing up the rear with Gavin beside him.
As they set off, Gavin glanced at Blair. "You don't look happy."
"I don't like the look of the weather. But Bobby - Mr. Andrews - is going by the weather forecast."
Gavin was silent for some moments. Then he said, "I don't like the look of the weather either. If I was on my own, I'd probably stay put or head straight back to the road. But a party this size? We're all pretty experienced; I can't really see us running into any problem we can't handle."
The campsite was surrounded by trees, and the track wound its way through them for nearly two miles before emerging above them, following the edge of the forested area for some distance before rising higher than the treeline.
It remained dry for nearly two hours before the rain started; and within two or three minutes, it was falling heavily. There was a quick scurry as people retrieved waterproof gear from their packs and pulled it on, then shouldered their rucksacks again and carried on. Blair held up a hand and frowned; they were walking straight into the wind, and it seemed to him that it was getting stronger. Tempted to go forward and suggest once again that they should turn back, he hesitated; then shrugged. He had already made his protest; he sensed that Bobby would still refuse to listen and for the moment had nothing but his instinct to back his argument, but he had a horrible feeling that conditions were only going to get worse.
Gavin said, very quietly, "One of Mr. Andrews' good qualities is his urge to complete something he's started; if he has a fault, it's his stubborn determination to complete something he's started, regardless of the difficulty. You already tried to tell him we should abandon the walk. Now that things are more unpleasant, he'll feel it's weak, giving in, to turn back, as common sense suggests."
"You're a very wise man, Gavin," Blair replied.
"My grandfather was a shaman. He taught me a lot, but I don't have his ability; I could never myself be a shaman. All I can do is read people. Don't get me wrong, I respect Mr. Andrews very much; but I can see that his greatest strength is also his greatest weakness."
Heads down, the party plodded on. The wind was indeed rising, gusting to gale force and the driving rain was quickly making a mockery of most of the waterproof garments they were wearing; nothing could withstand these conditions, and it wasn't long before everyone began to feel cold as well as wet.
And then Blair realized that the rain was turned to snow.
To start with it was very wet snow that melted as it hit the ground; and for a while thereafter, as they climbed steadily higher, the feet of the people in front of them, trampling what was beginning to lie, meant that Blair and Gavin were still walking on wet ground rather than snow. However, as the track levelled out, Blair could see that the ground on each side of the track was becoming steadily whiter. Soon the path would be completely covered, with only the occasional marker to indicate that they were still on it. And in the reduced visibility of the driven show, finding the correct route would, for Bobby, soon be more than difficult.
All he and Gavin had to do was follow everyone else; they were partly protected from the worst of the storm - no, Blair corrected himself; it was a blizzard now - by the fifty people walking ahead of them.
At least they had been walking along flat ground for some time, therefore they must be at the highest point of the track. That meant they had gone more than half-way, because although both campsites were at about the same altitude, the slope above them wasn't; Bobby had chosen the direction that gave them a longer, but more gradual, climb to the high ground. But turning back would still make more sense than continuing, because if they turned back the wind would be behind them.
Instinct and common sense told him he should make another attempt to make Bobby see reason; but remembering Bobby's 'stubborn determination to finish what he had started', he knew that, stubborn and pushy though he could be when he felt it was needed, he would be wasting his breath. An irresistible force needs at least a little time to affect an immovable object; and in some ways Bobby was the original immovable object over which the sea broke, waves disintegrating into spray before they drew back to hurl themselves once more at the solid rock of the shore. He could suggest that he would lead those who wanted to turn back, but splitting the party would be utter stupidity. Their best chance of survival was for everyone to stay together.
With a resigned sigh, head down, he carried on walking, and as he went, he wound his scarf over his mouth and nose. Some moments later, he pulled off his glasses and paused while he pushed them into a pocket of his jacket. The snow that plastered itself to the lenses was totally blinding him... and it wasn't as if he couldn't manage without them.
As he began walking again, he heard, not too far away, a wolf howling.
Jim dragged himself out of bed just after 6 am after a night spent dozing and waking, dozing and waking, aware of an uneasiness that reason told him was unwarranted but that he couldn't ignore. He washed and shaved and prepared a breakfast he didn't really want, forcing himself to eat. As he washed the dishes, he was aware of movement out of the corner of his eyes, and looked around, to see a large black shape standing at the door, as if waiting for him.
His spirit animal only made an appearance to indicate approval of something or if there was a problem. There was nothing right now for it to approve... so there had to be a problem. That could only mean that Sandburg was in trouble.
He ran upstairs, pulled a pack out of his closet and stuffed his sleeping bag and a change of clothes into it, thought for a moment then made it two changes. Carrying his walking boots, he went quickly back to the kitchen, and added some food to the pack. He made a quick check that everything was switched off and secure, grabbed his keys then hurried out, locking the door behind him. He went downstairs to the basement, gathered up his wet-weather gear and their newer, larger tent - Blair had taken the small two-man one that they hadn't used for months - did a quick mental check that he had everything he would need, paused to push a small day pack into the top of his rucksack, and ran out to the truck.
He would, he decided, head for the campsite Blair's group planned to use that night, get his tent pitched then set off up the track to meet them.
Now that he was moving, there was no sign of the black jaguar, which subtly reassured him that he had made the right decision. He forced himself to drive inside the speed limit until he reached the open countryside, then he put his foot down.
The closer he got to the mountains, the more he worried. Despite a forecast of a continuing dry spell, he did not like the look of the sky; the thick clouds hugging the tops of the mountains presaged rain. It was, however, still dry when he reached the parking lot for the camp site. He put on his boots, left his shoes inside the truck and locked it, swung pack and tent onto his back, and set off.
He had not gone more than about half of the distance before the rain started. He paused long enough to pull on his rain gear, then carried on. The track, on level ground until this point, began to rise, slowly but steadily, and as he climbed higher, he could hear the increasing strength of the wind blowing through the tops of the trees that surrounded him. At least the wind was behind him... but that meant Sandburg's party would be walking into the teeth of what was rapidly increasing to storm force. He hesitated at the realization. Sandburg, he knew, would take no chances with the safety of the students; the party he planned to meet might have turned back, in which case he would be putting himself into possible danger for no good reason. A growl drew his attention; the black jaguar was there ahead of him, tail twitching, and even as he registered its presence it turned and trotted on along the trail.
Well, that was pretty definitive. He drew a deep breath and hastened on, reminding himself that Blair wasn't in charge of the student party, and would have to follow where... what was the guy's name again? Bobby, that was it... led.
The campsite, when he reached it, was deserted. Well, with no other vehicles in the parking area, he had expected no less, though he would have expected a few intrepid hikers to be around now that it was into April and the forecast for the weekend had been good. He glanced around, and headed for the corner where they usually pitched their tent when they came here. He hurried to put up the tent, shook out his sleeping bag and pushed his pack into a front corner. He spared a moment to put some emergency gear into the small backpack; then he set off up the track leading to the other campsite, the track that Blair's party would be following.
It took nearly an hour before he climbed out of the shelter of the trees onto bare hillside, and conditions instantly deteriorated. There was no protection from the rain that lashed almost horizontally across the slope.
Again he hesitated for a moment. *Surely* Blair's party would have turned back, travelling with the wind to their first campsite. But the dark shape of the panther looked back impatiently, then turned and padded on.
The path was going downhill again. At least, Blair hoped they were still on the path - but at least they were going downhill. Conditions were unlikely to get worse, and might even improve as they got lower.
From ahead of him came a sharp cry; and everybody stopped walking.
Blair glanced at Gavin, who nodded. "I'll make sure nobody is left behind. Go and see what's wrong, Shaman."
So that's what drew him to me,* Blair thought as he began to push past the students. *He thinks I'm a shaman. Although he had always been interested in the position these men, and sometimes women, had in their communities and the work they did for their tribes. Shaman wannabe, perhaps.
At the front of the group, the wind seemed stronger and visibility seemed less. As he reached it, one of the students pointed downwards, a little to the side. Blair saw a darker patch against the white where something had slid from the side of the path, leaving bare earth that was rapidly being covered with snow, and the marks where someone - or several someones - had slid with it.
He slithered downhill for several yards. Two figures were bent over a third, who was lying awkwardly, its downhill slide stopped by a boulder. As he reached them, he saw that the one lying on the ground was Bobby.
"What happened?" he asked, although he was sure he knew.
"Something slid from under my foot, and I lost my balance," Bobby said. He hesitated for a moment, then said, "You were right, Blair; we should have turned back. Now... We're in trouble whatever we decide to do. I've been following a compass bearing for the last hour or so, but I lost my compass when I fell; I don't think we'll find it, and I don't suppose anyone else has one. It was just lucky that I had mine. We were following a track, after all, but now it's hidden by the snow."
"I have one," Blair said absently. "It lives in my pack." There was a more important aspect of the slip to consider. Looking at the awkwardly angle of Bobby's right leg, he went on, "Your leg's broken."
Bobby nodded. "Yes, I think it is. A little below the knee. If you can put up my tent to give me some shelter - "
"No way!" Blair exclaimed. He glanced at the two men - he recognized them as anthro students in their final year - who had followed Bobby down. Both were fairly tall. "How many of the group are roughly your age and size?"
"There are ten or a dozen of us," one of them said.
"Think you could carry Mr. Edwards piggyback if someone else took your packs?"
The two looked at each other, and in chorus said, "Yes."
Blair slipped his pack off, pulled off his gloves, and from a side pocket where he kept emergency essentials, retrieved an elastic bandage. "This isn't anywhere near being adequate as a splint, but it'll give your leg some support," he told Bobby. "It's going to be a pretty painful experience for you, but we can't leave you - with these conditions it might take long enough for a rescue party to reach you; too much weight of snow on the tent, you know what happens; it collapses. I doubt we can raise an alarm before it's too late for anyone to come for you tonight. We mightn't even be able to raise an alarm till well into tomorrow. We can't leave you alone, but we can't ask a student to stay with you - we've got to get them all to lower ground as quickly as possible - and the other leaders are needed with the main party." As he spoke he brushed as much snow as he could off Bobby's leg, then, using his body as a windbreak to prevent more snow from settling on it, wound the bandage tightly around the leg, ignoring the injured man's gasp of pain because there was nothing else he could do. He put a turn of it around the sole of the boot as well, and fastened the bandage. Then he hastily pulled his gloves on again. Once they were moving, his hands would warm up again... he hoped.
Between them they pulled Bobby up to stand on one leg. One of the two handed his pack over to the other and crouched. With Blair's help, Bobby climbed onto the student's back and they scrambled back up to join the main group.
There, Blair helped Bobby back onto the ground, then raised his voice to address the group.
"We need ten or so volunteers to take turns carrying Mr. Edwards, and others to help carry the packs of the volunteers."
There was less hesitation than he might have expected. Within a few seconds, several of the taller men had pushed forwards, and other hands were held out for the rucksacks and tents of these men.
Gavin was among the men who had come forward; Blair shook his head. "No, Gavin, I need you to bring up the rear. Maddy, Sylvie, you two stay with Gavin. If anyone begins to lag, yell. We need to stay close together."
He reached back into the side pocket of his rucksack and clumsily, because of his gloves - he wasn't taking them off again in these conditions - pulled out his compass. As he did, he heard a soft bark, and looked around. A little in front of them was a large wolf. A quick glance at the others showed that nobody else was aware of it, and he knew it was his spirit animal. It must have been it he had heard howling earlier, he decided. "What's the course?" he asked.
"I was following 198 degrees," Bobby said, "but the track isn't completely straight; we're possibly a little way off it, but still going in the right direction."
Well, that explains the loose rock, Blair thought.
"Okay," he said. "Everybody ready? Ten minute stints, no longer, before someone else takes over carrying Mr. Edwards. The ones with the extra packs, shift carriers then too."
Bobby was helped onto the back of the first volunteer, and Blair set off at a steady pace through the steadily deepening snow, apparently following a compass course but in actual fact following the wolf.
In case any of the students was watching, Blair carefully glanced at the compass from time to time. The first thing he realized, before he had gone more than a hundred yards, was that according to his wolf guide, the route Bobby had been following was taking them several degrees in the wrong direction. And just how far in the wrong direction had they gone?
After what he estimated was ten minutes, but could have been rather more or less, he stopped, knowing that he had to find a better way than guesswork to judge when ten minutes had passed. He had no intention of baring his wrist so that he could check his watch. "Time to change over," he said, and turned to help. He gripped Bobby's right wrist to support the man as he was carefully lowered to stand on his uninjured leg while his next carrier moved into position.
Even through his gloves and the material of Bobby's waterproofs, Blair could feel something solid on Bobby's wrist.
"Bobby," Blair said, allowing his voice to indicate worry. "Are you wearing a bracelet?"
As the student now carrying him straightened, Bobby said, "Yes. You know I recently developed a serious nut allergy. I wear a bracelet to indicate that."
"What metal is it?"
"It's... Oh, shit."
"Stainless steel. Oh, God, of course - the bracelet was affecting the compass. I never thought... I was getting a false reading and leading us off course."
Blair nodded. "I thought there was something wrong."
"What made you realize?" Bobby asked.
Blair thought fast. "Wind direction," he said. "I'm more aware of it now that I'm not being sort of sheltered by the people in front of me, and it seemed wrong. When I felt you were wearing something on your wrist... Don't worry about it. I don't think we're more than two or three degrees off course, and I'm sure I can get us back to the track." Though even as little as that, over a mile, was unpleasantly far in the wrong direction. He turned and, as he began to trudge onwards, he mentally began to run through a Yanomamo chant that he knew took about five minutes to complete. The Yanomamo would repeat it as often as necessary during a celebration; twice would do for him, telling him when it was time to change Bobby's carrier.
Jim was beginning to get seriously worried. The rain was turning to snow and visibility had dropped to a few yards.
Factoring in everything, the time it had taken him to get to the campsite and set up his tent and the distance he had covered since then, and the probable time that Blair's party would have left the other site, he would have expected to have met them by now. Certainly they were walking into the teeth of the blizzard, but even so... That he had not met them argued that they were in trouble.
Gritting his teeth, he tried to walk faster, but found the footing too treacherous; a steady slog was the best and safest speed to go.
The slope was getting steeper, and Blair began to be horribly aware of the danger of someone, especially towards the back of the group, beginning to slide; an uncontrolled slide could be disastrous. There was, however, nothing he could do about it. Even with the reduced visibility caused by the driving snow, he could see that they were simply following the lie of the land, It was with considerable relief that he finished the second cycle of the chant; another ten minutes was up.
"Time for a change," he said.
The third volunteer took over the burden of the injured man, and the party set off again.
It was two more changes before the wolf turned slightly, to travel along the side of the slope, still heading downhill but not as sharply as before, and Blair relaxed slightly. They must be back on the actual track, hidden though it was.
Just as they were about to set off again after their next change of volunteer, there was a cry from the back of the group. "Hold it!"
Blair made his way back, knowing he must but mentally grudging the loss of every step he had so laboriously taken.
One of the younger men, a freshman Blair recognized from his Anthropology 101 class, was down on one knee, leaning on the other, clearly exhausted.
Blair thought rapidly, considering the options.
The obvious thing to do - give the boy as much shelter as possible, leave him as warm as possible and with a companion, possibly even two, he dismissed for the same reasons that had made him refuse to leave Bobby. Although serious mountaineers of the breed that went on Everest expeditions would have tents capable of withstanding almost anything the mountains could throw at them, a tent of the kind they carried would be totally inadequate shelter in this blizzard and could well collapse under the weight of snow landing on it. And although it was getting steadily deeper, there still wasn't nearly enough depth of snow to provide a snow hole, which would have been the best shelter possible.
Now that they were well away from the highest part of the route, they could all stop, set up camp here and hope that conditions would improve overnight - with twenty-odd tents they could set them up so that three or four could protect the others to some degree from the driving snow; but he was more than reluctant to do that. Another hour - he hoped - should see them dropping back below the treeline, maybe even below the snowline.
They could lighten their load by leaving the rucksacks - or at least the rucksacks of the weaker members of the party - but with another night of camping planned they would need the contents of those rucksacks. They could leave some of the tents and spend the night squeezed into as many tents as they could carry, but that wouldn't give anyone a relaxed night's sleep. Even if a cell phone could get a signal so that they could call for a bus, it was totally impracticable to suggest trying to add the four - at least - hours it would take to reach the road to that day's hike, even if it was raining at the lower levels rather than snowing; even though they would be sheltered by trees for much of that time.
"All right, Jason, do you think you could go on if someone else carried your pack?" he asked. He glanced around. "Anyone feel able to carry extra for a while? You can trade off every time we stop to let someone else carry Mr. Edwards."
"I'll try," Jason said. "I'm sorry," he added as two of the older girls took his gear.
"Not your fault," Blair told him as Jason pushed himself upright.
"But the *girls* are managing better than I am!" He sounded as if he was on the verge of tears.
"Jason, it's a documented fact that in conditions like these, women on average prove to have more stamina than men," Blair told him, his voice carefully matter-of-fact. "I saw it for myself once, several years ago - a party of four, three men and the wife of one of them. They ran into trouble on a hike like this one, and two of the men collapsed; the third one was close to exhaustion, so he stayed with his friends and it was the woman who went on alone to call for help. She was pretty tired when she made the hostel they were aiming for, but said she could have gone on a few more miles if she'd had to." He didn't add that only the woman had survived; the men were all dead of exposure by the time rescue arrived. He glanced at Gavin, who nodded.
Blair nodded back. We're not leaving anyone behind was the silent message exchanged.
Gavin would try to keep Jason's morale up as much as possible. He knew how important that was; if Jason gave up, he was dead.
The snow was several inches deep now, and the feet of the leading members of the group sank in with every step, slowing them quite considerably. Blair floundered his way to the front, then glanced back at the group. "Shuffle around a bit - the ones who've been in front, drop back a little, let someone from the middle lead for a while. You won't exactly be getting shelter from the wind, but it'll mean someone just a touch fresher will be breaking the trail." The ones who had fallen to the back - apart from Gavin, Sylvie and Maddy - were the ones who were getting very tired, and he didn't suggest that they took a turn leading, knowing that it would be as much as they could do to get themselves to the campsite. And even the ones at the rear were being at least partly caked in white as the snow stuck to their upper garments.
For Blair himself there would be no respite; only he could follow the wolf.
As he set off again he stumbled over his own feet and nearly fell, and admitted to himself that he needed a rest; but he was too aware that a rest meant wasted time, time that they could use to drop lower. With luck it shouldn't be too long before they dropped below the snowline, and that would help their morale. He was afraid to stop, he decided; afraid that if they did, some of them, those who were tired and who were now walking mechanically, would lose their rhythm and find it impossible to carry on.
Suddenly a dark shape showed up through the driving snow a few feet in front of Blair, and paused beside the wolf. Blair closed his eyes for a moment in relief. Where the panther was, Jim wouldn't be far behind...
"Chief." Jim's eyes swept over the group, instantly seeing that one of the men was being carried. "I knew something was wrong, you were taking so long to meet me. What happened?"
"Bobby had a fall, broke his leg," Blair said. "We couldn't leave him - "
"No, not in these conditions," Jim agreed. "It's not too far to the snowline now, and below that it's just rain, but the wind is still storm force even below the treeline. I don't think it's going to clear up for quite a while. I'd say anyone left up here would be here for at least forty-eight hours. In spite of being wrapped in a sleeping bag, he'd probably be dead from hypothermia before he could be rescued."
"If he wasn't smothered by a tent collapsing under the weight of snow," Blair agreed. "So some of the bigger guys are taking turns carrying him, with others carrying their packs. But several of the younger ones are close to exhaustion. We've already got one of them who could do with being carried, too, but we've had to settle for getting his pack carried by someone else."
"And unless we were to phone the moment we could get a signal and get a bus out, then carry straight on to the road, we need the packs," Jim agreed.
"There's no way we can carry on to the road," Blair said. "Just getting to the camp site will be pushing it for Jason, and maybe one or two of the others."
"Okay." Jim shrugged out of his small pack and handed it to Blair before moving to the student carrying Bobby. "Right, I'll take him. I'm fresher than any of you - yes, I came in from the road today, and probably had nearly as long a day as you, but I've had the wind at my back."
As Bobby was transferred to Jim, one of the students said, "Do you want us to carry Jason?"
Blair thought for a moment before saying quietly, "No - at least not yet. He's feeling bad enough about being 'weak', having someone else carrying his gear; if he can make it to the campsite on his own two feet, it'll salvage some of his pride."
The others nodded agreement; they could understand that. Turning back into the wind, they carried on, now led by wolf and panther - although only Jim and Blair could see them.
After about half an hour, the snow changed to sleet and then to rain over a few hundred yards. It was still unpleasant, with rain being driven into their faces, but at least visibility was slightly improved. As the group plodded on towards the trees that they could now see not too far ahead, Blair pushed his compass into a pocket of his jacket.
"Hold it!" came another cry from the rear. Blair stopped, took a deep breath, and walked back, expecting to find that Jason had collapsed.
Jason, however, was still on his feet; it was one of the others who had collapsed. Unlike Jason, who had simply gone down on one knee, this one was lying on the ground, looking up helplessly.
Again, Blair recognized the youngster as one of the Anthro 101 students.
"Hi, Tim," he said. "Things got a bit beyond you?"
The boy nodded. "I thought it'd be easier once we got below the snow, but it didn't."
"Think you can carry on if someone takes your pack?"
Tim shook his head wearily. "All I want to do is lie here and rest."
"I know the feeling," Blair agreed, "but we need to get on, get to where we'll have a reasonably sheltered campsite."
"We'll carry him," a voice said. Blair glanced up into the face of Mike, one of the volunteers who had been carrying Bobby.
"Thanks," he said, knowing that they, too, must be getting very tired. He glanced over at Jason. "How are you holding up?"
"I can go a bit further," Jason said. "It's easier now there isn't the snow."
Blair resisted the temptation to say 'You're sure?', aware of how badly that would injure the boy's pride, settling for simply saying, "Okay."
Willing hands helped Tim onto Mike's back, one of the girls took Tim's pack, and Blair headed back to the front of the group. "Right, let's go," he said.
They carried on.
A few minutes later, the track dropped down among the trees, and the instant shelter from the force of the wind and the lashing rain felt wonderful. They were all tired, they were all cold, but Blair could feel a more hopeful attitude in the group, as if suddenly everyone felt they could carry on almost indefinitely.
Now that they were out of the worst of the wind and getting some shelter from the rain, Blair debated with himself whether they could pause for a few minutes to rest; but he was still aware that too many of them were close to the limit of their endurance, and if they stopped they would lose their second wind and feel more tired than if they hadn't stopped. Certainly now that they were in the shelter of the trees they could camp where they were in relative safety, but it would be an uncomfortable camp. Better to push on and try to reach the campsite that was still a full hour away. With luck they would reach it before darkness fell - and that was another argument for not stopping. If necessary, they could stay there for an extra day, recovering, but he was fairly sure that a good night's sleep would be enough to let most of the party recover enough to tackle the walk back to the road - and the campsite was open enough that a rescue helicopter could land to pick up their injured man and anyone, like Tim and Jason, who might still be too exhausted, even after a night's sleep, to tackle the walk.
He hoped a helicopter could fly in. If Jim was right about these conditions continuing for another forty-eight hours, though, the conditions would probably be too bad to allow a helicopter to take to the air, in which case Bobby would have to be carried to the road - but here, where there were trees, they could make a stretcher using branches and coats.
He brushed some of the thawing snow off the front of his jacket even as he considered how best to deal with Bobby's broken leg once they stopped. Should they try to set it before splinting it with a couple of short branches, or should they just splint it for the support and leave the medical staff to set the leg once Bobby reached the hospital? From his own experience with a broken arm, he knew that once Bobby was lying down and not trying to move, the leg wouldn't be too painful, but if they had to carry him out...
Yes. Best to assume they *would* have to carry him out, and set the leg before immobilising it the best they could.
Oh, God. That was something else he'd have to do before he could rest...
Blair closed his eyes for a moment to rest them, and debated putting his glasses on again, but the rainwater dripping off and through the trees decided him against it. Wet glasses weren't as bad as snow-covered ones, but visibility would still be distorted. No, he would still see more clearly without them.
He plodded on, following the track; there was no sign, now that they were in no danger of losing their way, of wolf or panther. Time no longer had any real meaning. All that mattered was putting one foot in front of the other, and continuing in his mind the chant that he was beginning to hate.
He had almost forgotten why he was chanting...
Suddenly he realized that he had begun a third repetition, and paused. "Time for a change," he called back.
A minute later came the return call. "Ready."
"On we go."
The changes of Tim's carrier should have kept him in some sort of contact with time - Jim had refused to take a break from carrying Bobby - but keeping track of just how many changes there had been since they entered the forest seemed almost too much effort; so it was with some surprise that halfway through the next repetition Blair saw a big clearing in front of him... with a tent sitting invitingly at one side of it.
It took a moment for him to register that they had finally - finally! - reached the campsite.
He stopped, and turned. "Okay, guys," he said. "Just one last effort then you can rest. Get some tents up - food can wait unless you have something you can eat cold. Then get out of your wet clothes and into your sleeping bags. Get warmed up. Jim, is that our tent?" Even as he spoke he knew the question was unnecessary.
"Yes, but I think we should put Bobby and Tim into it."
Blair nodded. "Get them under cover right away. Yes."
Knowing that they were safely at the camp site and no more walking would be asked of them that day seemed to invigorate most of the party. There was a flurry of movement as people began to erect tents. The people carrying Bobby's and Tim's packs brought them over before seeing to their own needs. Jim put Bobby down then shoved his sleeping bag back into his pack and hauled it out of the tent, digging into Bobby's pack for his sleeping bag.
Seeing that Jim had everything in hand there, Blair headed for the nearest trees. Conifer woods weren't the best for relatively thin, rigid sticks, but he found two that he thought would serve as splints fairly quickly, and headed back, registering as he did that the light was beginning to fail, and spared a moment to be grateful that they had reached the site when they did.
"I'm going to set your leg," he told Bobby - he had been fast enough that Jim had only had time to unwind the wet bandage, and he suspected that although he hadn't seen Wolf, his spirit animal had subtly directed him to where he could find suitable sticks. Tim had found the energy to drag off his boots and rain gear, and without removing anything else was sliding into his sleeping bag.
They unfastened Bobby's boots and eased off his waterproof trousers, then Jim felt carefully down the broken leg. "I think it's a straightforward simple break," he said, "and not too displaced." As he spoke he pulled the foot hard down for a moment then released the pressure as Bobby gave an involuntary yelp. "That's it."
Working together, he and Blair fastened the two sticks to the broken leg, using a second bandage that Blair retrieved from his pack. They pulled off the rest of his rain gear, then manoevered him into his sleeping bag.
"I'll get our other tent up," Jim said.
Blair nodded, took a deep breath and, in the half light, forced himself to move and began to check the other tents.
Satisfied that everyone was lying down and warming up, he stumbled his way over to where Jim had their small tent ready.
The two-man tent, they had discovered, was more than adequate for one, but ever so slightly cramped with two in it when one of the two was Jim's size - the main reason they had bought a larger tent. But on this night, neither man cared.
Jim had already shed his wet clothes, and had fastened the two sleeping bags together. Blair hauled off his clothes, retaining an undershirt and his boxers, shoved the wet things into the tiny space available beside the tent door and slid in beside his friend.
"All right?" Jim murmured.
"Ask me in the morning," Blair replied. "For the moment I'm just glad to he here and lying down."
Jim chuckled, and pulled Blair into his arms, Blair's back against his chest and stomach.. Blair made one last effort. "When you showed up... I was never so glad to see anyone."
"That makes two of us," Jim said. "When I woke up this morning, Blackie nagged me to come and meet you, but it was taking so long... I knew something had gone wrong."
"I tried to get Bobby to turn back when the weather turned so nasty, but he wouldn't," Blair mumbled. Moments later, he was asleep.
Jim pulled him a little closer, then concentrated on listening to the sounds around them. All he could hear was the breathing and soft snores from the surrounding tents, the patter of rain and the soughing of the wind in the treetops. He, too, was very tired. Satisfied that there was no danger near, he closed his eyes and drifted into sleep.
When Blair woke in the morning, he lay for some minutes, just enjoying the warmth and the simple fact that he wasn't walking. Behind him he was aware of Jim, breathing softly and still asleep. Aware that he should go and check that everyone else was all right, he persuaded himself that if he moved it would disturb Jim, who, although he hadn't spent most of the previous day battling the elements, had certainly had as tiring a day as everyone else.
Suddenly he became aware that he couldn't hear rain hitting the material of the tent, although the noise the wind was making in the treetops said that it was still blowing with storm force. He slipped out of Jim's arms, shivering as the cold air outside the sleeping bags hit his bare arms, and crawled to the door of the tent. Unzipping it, he looked out... onto a white camp site. Snow, falling into the calm of the clearing, was drifting down, though when he looked upwards, it was to see that above the trees the snow was still being blown at considerable speed.
He pulled on clothes and boots, and made his way to their larger tent, unzipped the door and peered in. Tim was still asleep; Bobby was awake, and smiled a rueful welcome.
"How does your leg feel?" Blair asked.
"It's all right as long as I don't try to move," Bobby said wryly. "At least the rain seems to have stopped?"
Blair shook his head. "The temperature dropped overnight. It's snowing now, though we're pretty sheltered here among the trees. Thank goodness we were able to keep going and get everyone to here. If we had left anyone up there... I don't think they would have survived."
Bobby looked at him. "I'm sorry."
Blair shook his head. "You made a decision based on the info you had. It wasn't your fault someone got the forecast all wrong. By the time you were hurt, we were already past the point where turning back made sense." It wasn't totally true, because the going would have been easier if they had travelled with the wind, but they would certainly have had further to go. "Now we have to decide if we stay here another twenty-four hours in the hope that the weather clears, or head out and hope the road's clear enough for the bus to get through. But if we make the road and the bus isn't there, we can camp along the edge of the trees until it does come. If we wait till tomorrow, there's a faint chance we can call in a rescue helicopter to pick you up. They certainly won't be able to fly today. On the other hand, they could still be grounded tomorrow. Jim's fairly weather-wise, and he thinks this will last at least another two days."
"It's sheltered here. Couldn't you just leave me to be picked up when a chopper can fly?"
Blair could see in his eyes dread of the pain being carried out would cause him.
"We can make a stretcher," he said. "It still won't be exactly comfortable for you, but your leg will have more support than it got yesterday. Tell you what; I'll check up on everyone, see how recovered they are. It's four hours to the road - probably nearer five at the rate we're likely to make, since I suspect pretty well everyone will still be tired from yesterday. And in the shelter of the trees, we can give ourselves a break every hour. There's always a chance that this snow will turn back to rain as the day goes on - and the road is at least a thousand feet lower than here; it might still be raining there rather than snowing."
He went around the other tents, finding that everyone was still asleep. Well, he would give them another hour, then waken them. Turning from the last tent, he headed for his own, only to find that Jim had wakened and was looking out.
He kicked off his boots and pulled off his outer clothes, and slid back into the sleeping bag with a sigh of content.
"We'd have managed... but I'm glad you came," he murmured.
Jim chuckled. "Like I said, Blackie wouldn't give me any peace until I did." He hesitated for a moment. "But I damned near followed you on Friday night anyway."
"You did? Did you sense the weather was changing?"
"No. By the time I got back to the loft... I was already missing you. I kept telling myself you didn't need me tagging along after you... but the truth was that I needed to tag along - because I need you."
After a while Jim raised his head, clearly listening. "What?" Blair asked.
"Voices. People are beginning to waken."
"Good; that'll save us having to waken them. But we'd better check up on them ASAP."
"Okay, Chief. Let's move."
They scrambled into their clothes, pulled on their boots, and went out into the snow. It was only an inch or so deep - not enough to be more than a minor nuisance, and both men were well aware that there would be very little lying under the trees.
The night's rest had worked wonders; even Tim and Jason, who had been so exhausted the night before, claimed to be recovered.
Most of the party were carrying kerosene stoves, and it didn't take long before all were breakfasting. Blair ate quickly, then went in search of two long branches to use for a stretcher. Once again he found what he was looking for surprisingly quickly, and returned to the campsite. Using coats, he quickly assembled a rough stretcher.
They took down the tents, and once again shared out the gear of the ten men who had volunteered to carry Bobby out; then set off. Slowly, once again, the snow changed to rain which was in some ways more annoying than the snow had been, for the snow hadn't really reached the ground, here among the trees, while the rainwater dripped off the branches as the treetops shook in the wind. As they lost height, however, the wind seemed to be dropping from storm force to merely gale force.
They were roughly halfway back to the road when Blair, who had been checking his cell phone at regular intervals since leaving the campsite, finally got a signal and called for an ambulance to meet them. Both it, and the bus, were waiting when they reached the road.
Jim tossed his gear and Blair's into the truck. "I'll follow you back," he said, knowing that Blair would need to travel in the bus with the students, especially since Blair had suggested that Sylvie went with Bobby to the hospital.
At Rainier, after everyone had scattered, Blair crossed to the truck and climbed in.
He grinned wryly. "Not quite the weekend I signed up for," he said as he fastened his seat belt.
"Promise me one thing," Jim said.
Blair glanced quizzically at him. "What?"
"Next time Bobby suggests you go hiking with the Rainier club - say no. The guy's certifiable. He should have turned back as soon as he realized you were walking into a blizzard."
"But then you'd have been up there on your own - "
"No," Jim said as he started the truck. "Blackie alerted me, and I was following him. If you'd turned back there wouldn't have been any need for him to drag me out... not that I needed much dragging. Or if he had shown up, he'd have taken me to where you were."
"Okay. But seriously, I think Bobby learned a lesson from this. I don't think he'll ever take that sort of risk again."
"I hope not," Jim said grimly.
"One of the older students - Gavin - walked with me most of the way until Bobby broke his leg. He's native American, grandson of a shaman. He said Bobby's determination to finish what he started was both his greatest strength and his greatest weakness. He said also you have to remember to respect nature, because nature always wins."
"This time - not quite, but without our two friends it probably would have won," Jim said.
"I think that this weekend Bobby finally learned to respect nature."
Jim nodded. "Maybe so. But even if he did - promise me you won't let him risk your life again. You said it a while back - it's about friendship. I need my guide, Chief - but even more, I need my friend."
Blair looked at him. "I promise," he said quietly.
He had never made a promise more seriously.