November 21st: Pine Springs, Colorado
The man staggers through knee-deep snow, buffeted by the furious wind and a battery of ceaseless snowflakes. He can no longer feel his feet, which snag on buried vegetation and slip on hidden rocks. He falls, but manages to push himself upright with the knowledge that the next time he falls might be the last. His hands ache from the bitter cold and frostbite has already begun to erode the flesh on his nose and cheeks. The blood from his chapped lips has frozen to his teeth, and despite the snow that blows into his open mouth, his throat is bone-dry. His beard is white with ice and so many crystals have crusted in his eyelashes that he can no longer force them closed. His vision is burned red, save for the myriad white shapes that race past him, making the ground seem to tilt and the buried pine trees lean.
He repeats three words over and over in his mind.
They are the only conscious thoughts he’s capable of forming, the residue of the plan he formed when he set out. He had known at the time that it really wasn’t much of a plan, but its simplicity was what had allowed him to survive beyond the point when his faculties abandoned him. As long as he continued to move forward and follow the mountainous topography ever downward, he would eventually find a cabin or a town or someplace where he would be able to find help. And they would definitely help him…especially when he showed them what he had tucked under his jacket, against his chest.
They would have to believe him then.
He is on his face in the snow before he realizes he’s going to fall. He coughs out a mouthful of snow and pushes himself up to all fours-
— only to find the world black again. He can’t breathe. He panics and pushes himself up again on trembling arms. It takes all of his strength to rise to his knees so that he can claw the snow out of his eyes and mouth.
A distant golden aura through the shifting branches and blowing flakes.
He bellows in triumph. It is an animal sound that summons a warm trickle of blood from his trachea.
He manages to create momentum and wills his legs to carry him onward.
The light grows brighter and brighter until he bursts from the thicket and stumbles into the tire ruts on an icy road. There are silhouettes in the light, vague outlines that he recognizes only as help.
He doesn’t recognize the words painted on the plate glass window or the tables at which he and his friends had dined only five days prior, in a purple vinyl booth beneath mounted jackalope heads and framed yellow newspaper clippings featuring colorful local stories about notorious cannibals like Alferd Packer and George Donner and various Bigfoot hoaxes. He doesn’t comprehend the startled expressions on the faces of the patrons who witness his approach. He is focused solely on the door and somehow making his useless hand open it.
The warmth assaults him. The intensity of the light blinds him.
Shadows race toward him. He hears the clatter of plates and the thunder of footsteps on his way down. Voices everywhere-loud, penetrating-but he doesn’t understand the words.
Forward has served him well and fades from the repetition.
Down vanishes when he hits the tiled floor.
He is left with help and he knows how to receive it.
He opens his jacket and his proof falls to the floor with a thud.
There is a long moment of silence.
And then the screaming begins.
November 18th: Mt. Isolation
Three Days Ago
“Help me get him in here!” Will Coburn shouted to be heard over the shrieking wind. “Hang on. Let me brace the door.”
Joel Vigil groaned in agony.
“Would you just hold still?” Blaine Shore said. He was struggling to maintain his grasp on Vigil’s legs. “You’re just going to make it worse.”
“Cut him some slack,” Todd Baumann said. “It’s not his fault.”
The blizzard had descended from out of nowhere. One minute they were skulking through the forest under a cold gray sky, following elk sign that couldn’t have been more than a few hours old, and the next they were struggling to shield their eyes from snowflakes the size of moths hurled into their faces by thirty-mile-an-hour gusts. The forecast had called for scattered flurries in the high country all weekend, but the meteorologists had been wrong. As usual. Granted, the weather in the Colorado Rockies was the definition of unpredictability, but how any of these jokers kept their jobs was beyond him. Coburn only wished he had a job like that. As an orthopedic surgeon, if he guessed wrong, he got sued. And often even when he didn’t.
“Lower him down right here,” Coburn said. “Gently. Gently. Try to keep that leg as straight as possible.”
He lowered Vigil’s torso to the snow-dusted dirt floor in a gap between broken gray boards that had been planed before his grandparents were born.
“You should be the one holding his leg,” Shore said. “I can feel the bones shifting around under there-”
“You have the light end,” Baumann said. “I’ve got all the weight balanced under his…there.”
They slid their arms out from beneath Vigil, who bared his teeth and clenched his eyes against the pain. He must have slipped on a rock on the steep escarpment. He had been right behind them on the path one second and crashing through the scrub down the hillside the next. They had followed his cries through the blizzard until they found him at the bottom of the ravine, his right leg crumpled beneath him, his left shoulder balanced on a chunk of ice on the frozen creek, while the water spilled out underneath his head. It was below freezing and he was wet, but the more immediate concern was that the sharp edges of the broken bones could slice his femoral or tibial arteries and flood his leg with blood. They’d been lucky to stumble upon this old homestead beneath the storm.
Coburn pulled his Model 70 °CDL DM bolt-action Remington rifle over his head and tossed it to the ground.
“Shore…hand me your knife.”
Coburn crawled toward Vigil’s legs. The right boot was pointing awkwardly to the side.
“My knife? Why do you have to use my…? You aren’t going to attempt to perform surgery on him out here-”
“Just give me your damn knife!”
Coburn slipped off his gloves and held out his right hand. Shore slid the hunting knife from its scabbard and slapped the hilt into Coburn’s palm.
“Thank you,” Coburn said, and proceeded to cut Vigil’s jeans from the top of his boots to his groin. He did the same thing to the thermal underwear beneath, then carefully removed the boot and finished the job on the clothing.
“Jesus,” Baumann whispered.
Vigil’s leg was a reddish-purple and black mess of bruises, but there was no indication of pooling blood, or hypostasis. Coburn checked the strength of the pulse in Vigil’s foot and breathed an audible sigh of relief. They hadn’t clipped an artery. There was visible deformity, both superior and inferior to the knee joint itself, suggesting fractures to the distal femur and both the proximal tibia and fibula. He was going to have to reduce the breaks and run the risk of a whole list of potential complications as long as his arm, but doing so would only buy them so much time.
They needed to get Vigil off of this mountain, and they needed to do so right now.
“I know we’ve been doing this since we were undergrads,” Shore said, “but I think this is going to be my last year. The wife’s gone vegan and started pressing me about having a kid. And if I play my cards right, I just might make partner-”