Up and out of the makeshift shelter long before the others with the return of daylight, Bud did a quick assessment of the area, snow still falling, though not as heavily as before, and all around ominous signs as to the stability of the newly burdened snowpack. The stuff sunk under him as he walked, lower layers settling with a hollow, sickening whump whenever he stepped too far from one of the trees, and after a few such incidents he stuck carefully to the more heavily timbered areas, few as they were up so high.
Everyone, so far as he could tell, had made it through the night without too much damage, though he had little doubt there would be some frostbitten fingers and toes amongst the men. Shirley, after taking inventory, was even more sure of the thing Bud had only supposed. Two of the men had fairly serious finger damage, and though it did not appear anyone was likely to lose toes, the situation was sure to worsen should they have to spend another night out there with minimal shelter, no dry socks and only a couple of granola bars left between them.
Water they did have, but only because of the efforts of Shirley and one of the other agents, a first-year recruit from Montana, who had stayed up a good portion of the night tending one of only two water vessels that had not been left down at the bottom of the slide area when the storm set in—a stainless steel bottle belonging to Bud—and passing its slightly warmed contents around in turns as they painstakingly converted dry, high-altitude snow to water over the little fire. Bud had to admit a grudging respect for the man and his persistence, even after their little disagreement that past day which had ended up with Shirley pointing a pistol at his face… This was a man who would go places, a natural leader. Which places—a grim chuckle from Bud—and exactly how quickly, and on what sort of trajectory, were yet to be determined.
It was clear to Bud, and to Shirley, joining him beneath his chosen shelter-tree and watching a somber grey light creep across slopes of flat, unbroken white, that they needed to go down. Any tracks they might have hoped to follow, any further evidence they may have been hoping to collect on the fugitive party’s backtrail—it was all gone beneath the snow, as they might well end up themselves, if prompt action was not taken.
The difficulty came in deciding exactly what sort of action to take. Bud, though he did not say so at first, waiting instead to see what Shirley’s plan would be, was all for taking the straightest safe line down the mountain—if such could be found—and waking out to the nearest spot where either choppers or snow machines could come and haul them down the rest of the way. Chopper evacuation from anywhere near their current elevation was out of the question, unless they were to wait until the weather broke a bit, and neither he nor Shirley believed they had that much time. Not all of them, anyway. Not the men already suffering frostbitten fingers, and with toes heading in the same direction.
Shirley shared Bud’s concerns, was intelligent enough, though far less experienced in the mountains, to see that they were all heading for disaster if they tried to stick out for another night up on that high slope, but he had other priorities in addition to the welfare and safe return of the men in his charge. Shirley was thinking of the evidence, of the numerous samples they risked losing irretrievably should they fail to stop back by their base camp before evacuating. When he expressed to Kilgore his desire to make a pass by base camp before heading down, the tracker remained silent for a long moment, mentally debating his best course of action. The return to base camp—any return, by any possible route—that day meant to place themselves at serious risk of getting caught in an avalanche or two, which, he could not deny, might well prove just the opportunity he had been looking for. Lead them into a trap. Return alone. Or, just as likely, not at all, not being the most experienced winter mountaineer, himself. Hadn’t even been skiing since sometime in his 20s, and knew he might easily misjudge the danger, miss the signs and go down with them. He opted, then, to try and keep everyone alive, at least for the moment. Which meant challenging Shirley on his desire to return to base camp.
“Awful open in that direction, you know. Pretty good chance for slides. Best if we head straight down from here, follow this spur of timber and hope it leads us down into a lower basin where things aren’t so steep, open, unstable…”
“Not happening. No way I’m leaving all that evidence there to be drifted under by the wind, swept away by another slide or even tampered with by Asmundson and his lot, if by some chance they’re still up here. We’ve got to recover it. Should only take a few hours, and then we can head down the way you’re describing. Or some better way, if we see one between now and then.”
Bud shrugged. “Go if you got to, but how about I stay here with most of the men? Cut down on disturbance to the slopes you got to cross, maybe reduce the chances of a slide, and leave somebody uninjured to come dig you out when the mountain lets go.”
“You know what I think about breaking up the group. We’ll stay together. Now I know you kept us alive through the night, Kilgore, you and your mountain man skill, but I have to wonder what else you’ve been doing with those skills. Where you’ve been, and with whom. You’re on my radar, tracker, and no whiteout is going to change that. We’re going together, and you’ll travel in the center of the group. I’ll lead this time.”
A blank stare from Bud, who had plenty of responses he would have liked to use, but decided it best to remain silent at the moment, seeing as several others had emerged from the shelter and were watching them. Later. The time would come. For now… “Surely, Shirley. Middle of the group it is. Better get them men moving, if you don’t want them to sit there and freeze their toes off now that the fire’s gone out and no one else is collecting sticks to keep it going.”
“No one’s going to freeze. Half an hour out to base camp, then straight down the mountain. We didn’t get that much snow. I know how you operate, overestimating the dangers, trying to manipulate this operation. Not falling for it, tracker. The game is up. Now you’re going to wait right here while I go pry the men out of that shelter for the day.
Bud waited, considering, hacking idly at the nearby snow with a spruce stick, digging, inspecting, weighing the odds…