They made it nearly halfway back to base camp, the young agent from Montana leading, before the slope finally let go. Each lost in his own little world of weariness, cold and lack of sleep, a haze only deepened by the white sameness of the terrain before them and the still-falling snow, most of the men had no inkling of the coming trouble until Bud began shouting. By then, it was nearly too late to do anything, a few attempting to throw themselves to the side and one man, panicked by the fast-approaching roar, inexplicably taking off running and sliding down the steep slope below.
Bud, having been required by Shirley to travel near the center of the close-knit group of agents, barely had time to do more than shout a brief warning before the slide hit him and then he was swimming, flailing with arms and legs in a desperate struggle to remain somewhere near the surface. His efforts more or less paid off, head out in the open air when finally the roaring stopped, and freeing himself with a grunt and a shove from the load of snow that had pinned him almost up to the waist in a very uncomfortable position he rose, took a tentative step to make sure everything would hold weight—which, though sore and quickly stiffening, it would—and went looking for the others.
The slide had been wide, snowpack fracturing some twenty yards above the spot where the group had been crossing it and sweeping down across their position, and as Kilgore squinted out across the broken whiteness , he saw no sign of life. Not, that was, until he’d walked nearly to the far edge of the slide path. There, crouched beneath a tree and struggling to catch his breath, was the young agent from Montana who had helped collect firewood and keep snow melting for water through the night, slightly dazed but, upon quick inspection, largely uninjured. Seeing that the man was capable of physical effort but having a difficult time motivating himself to anything more than the effort required to go on clinging to the tree that had apparently sheltered him from being swept away by the edge of the slide, Bud took him firmly by the arm, raised him to his feet.
“Ok Montana, looks like it’s you and me, here. We got to start digging.”
“Right. Digging… Where?”
“Where the people are, that’s where. You see anything? See where anybody ended up?”
“Me either. So we got to probe around, find some sticks and start…hey! You listening to me? What’s the matter with you, Montana? You bleeding somewhere? Bleeding out, and I missed it? What’s going on?”
“Nothing sir, I just…” The young agent was shaking, starting to look pretty pale, and once again Kilgore checked him over to make sure there was no obvious physical cause. Which there was not.
“Get it together, kid. Slide’s over. Most guys tend to go a bit green around the gills when they see their first action, but you got to pull it together now and help me dig.”
Already Bud was wandering the slide debris, long spruce stick in hand, stabbing it into the snow at regular intervals and stopping to investigate further when he hit something that seemed potentially promising. The young agent soon joined him, and it was not long before they had their first success, though a dismal one. The man was already dead by the time they pulled him out, done in, it seemed, more by the force of all that tumbling, solidifying snow than by any subsequent lack of oxygen. It was shortly after the recovery of that first body that Bud began hearing something, an odd sort of rasping, scraping sound coming from behind a mound of snow-covered boulders against the upper edge of which the slide had impacted, but been largely diverted.
There in the semi-sheltered spot immediately downhill of the rocks he found Shirley, conscious, wild-eyed, right arm hanging uselessly as he scraped at the rock with a fragment of granite gripped tightly in his left hand in an apparent attempt to attract the attention of anyone else who might have survived the avalanche. He did not stop when he saw Bud, not quite believing, perhaps, that the tracker was real—until the man approached him and took the rock fragment, sitting down beside him and beginning to check for additional injuries.
Shirley had a badly dislocated right shoulder which Bud quickly and successfully reduced before Shirley could have time to think about the procedure, but in handling the arm Bud discovered that the shoulder was the least of his problems. Bent at an odd angle and already turning purple with bruise beneath his coat sleeve, the agent’s lower arm appeared to be badly broken, bone fragment pressing hard against the skin from the inside and appearing about to break it. Shirley screamed when Bud tried to straighten the arm, swung at him with his good hand but Montana (whose actual name was Paul, but Bud never thought to ask) caught it before it could do any damage, helped as Bud did his best to set the arm, splint it with Shirley’s scarf and several lengths broken from his avalanche probe and get it into a makeshift sling. Shirley clearly wasn’t going to be of much help, so the two of them went on alone, probing, digging, finding nothing…
Hours of fruitless digging, Bud doing most of the work after a time while Montana tried to raise someone on the radio and Shirley sat groaning against a spruce, no more bodies, no more living victims; the others, it seemed, had been so thoroughly buried that their discovery, let alone recovery, was beyond the skill and ability of the trio on the surface.
Montana couldn’t get anyone on the radio. One of the others had been carrying a satellite phone, but now he, along with the phone, were buried somewhere beneath the snow. Not that it really mattered. No helicopter would be flying in that storm, anyway. No evacuation coming. They were going to have to walk out. Bud was the one to finally state the obvious. That no one else was alive. The others, especially Shirley, did not want to believe it, did not want to leave, but everyone knew Shirley was in no shape to help with the recovery effort, would be hard pressed simply to get himself down off the mountain, and finally, at the urging of Montana, who had worked hard at the digging and was looking absolutely exhausted, he agreed to head down. But not before angrily accusing Kilgore of intentionally orchestrating the entire thing...