As Stone pulls me through the back door of the cabin, something explodes behind us. We fall facedown on the snow, stunned like cattle after being hit with an electric prod, but we scramble blindly backward for the cover of the cabin wall, knowing instinctively that exposure means death.
Hunched against the side of the cabin, I scan the swollen river and its banks in the dying light. I see no way to use that flooded stream as a means of escape. Stone's lips are moving, but I hear nothing. He turns and begins tugging at something beneath his cabin. It's some sort of inflatable boat, a long red plastic thing, like a cross between a canoe and kayak. Seeing that I can't hear his orders, Stone takes back the pistol he gave me, then motions for me to drag the kayak to the water, a distance of about eighty feet. He obviously means to cover me while I do this, but I'm not going to drag anything. If I have to cross that open space, I'm going to do it as fast as I can.
Dropping to my knees, I turn the kayak upside down and crawl under it, sliding it onto my back like an elongated turtle shell. Its coated fabric skin probably wouldn't stop a pellet gun, but at least I'll be able to run with the thing.
As I start toward the river, my Reebok-clad feet slip and crunch over the snow. The bow of the kayak bobs forward and back as I rush forward, obscuring my vision, making my gauntlet longer than it needs to be. I cringe at the stutter of an automatic weapon somewhere behind me, but the reassuring bellow of Stone's.45 pushes me on. At least I haven't completely lost my hearing.
The last half of my dash to the river has the terrible dreamlike quality of pursuing a receding horizon, the shock of my feet hitting rocks under the snow the only tangible proof that I'm awake. The swiftly falling darkness is probably providing more protection than Stone's pistol, but it can't be long before someone sprays a clip at the fleeing kayak.
When my feet kick up the first splash, I leap forward and land in a bone-chilling current that pulls at the kayak like a giant hand. Fighting to my knees in the current, I flip the kayak upright and lie down in the shallows beside it, leaving only my head exposed. Muzzle flashes in the cabin windows punctuate the flashes below them, where Stone must be firing. There's a brief lull, and then Stone comes charging out of the darkness toward the water, a two-bladed kayak paddle in one hand and his Winchester in the other.
He whirls and fires twice on the run, then breaks in my direction, using the white propane tank for concealment. He's halfway to the water when another flash lights up the interior of the cabin. Stone grabs his buttocks, lurches forward, then spins and returns fire as he goes down in the snow.
I start pulling the kayak toward the bank, but the bottom shallows quickly beneath me, forcing me into an exposed position. The water feels like glacial runoff, stealing my breath, making my teeth chatter uncontrollably. But it's better than what Stone is enduring. Every five seconds or so he lets off a.45 round back at the cabin windows, but he can't keep that up forever. Panic scrambles around in my chest like a crazed animal, urging me to flight. It wouldn't take anything, just a surrender to the current. I could float downstream for fifty yards, then climb into the kayak and be on my way.
As though sensing my panic, Stone holds the paddle and rifle along the length of his body and begins rolling across the snow toward the river. The old agent looks like a kid playing a game. Bullets kick up white powder in front of him, but he doesn't even slow down. When he is five yards away, I yell: "Th-throw me the pistol!"
The.45 skids across the snow, but I manage to get my fingers around it before it disappears in the river. The steel feels warm compared to the water. It's too dark to aim accurately at the cabin from here, but two more muzzle flashes obligingly appear, and I let off three shots at the afterimage on my retinas.
"Into the current!" shouts Stone.
"What about the kayak?"
"Too easy to hit! Just hang onto the rope!"
He rolls into the shallows, then hangs up on the rocks somehow. I fire twice more at the cabin, then grab his belt and drag him into the current while bullets spray water against my knees. The muzzle flashes are between the cabin and the river now. They're coming for us.
As I grope helplessly for the kayak, Stone rises to his knees in the water, the big Winchester braced against his shoulder. He fires once, then cycles the bolt, waits three seconds, and fires again.
A fireball the size of the cabin itself explodes out of the darkness, sucking up all the air around us. I feel the pull in my lungs and sinuses as a millisecond's image of a blazing man is seared into my brain and I tumble backward into the freezing water. The propane tank, marvels a voice in my head. One shot to pierce its skin, the second to ignite the gas…
Stone is already in the main channel of the river, trying to keep his head and the rifle above the surface. Wrapping the kayak's bow rope tightly around my wrist, I leap into the black water where the current is strongest and give myself to it. A couple of desultory shots ring out, but they could be loose rounds in the pistols of dead men, cooking off in the inferno Stone has made of his home. The river has us in its power now, and the assassins are but a burning memory falling behind us in the dark.
"Ahead of you," comes a faint reply. "Did they hit the kayak?"
"I don't think so."
"It's got three cells. Check it out."
Since I'm hanging onto the kayak for dear life, it's not difficult to obey Stone's order. The strange craft seems intact, though its cells don't seem as fully inflated as they might be. Stone's two-bladed paddle is wedged between the seats and the starboard gunwale.
The water here is swift and smooth. The moon and stars shine with white brilliance, reflecting off the deep water like diamonds flung onto its surface. I kick with the current, hoping to ease my fear and aloneness by overtaking Stone.
A sharp cry comes from up ahead. I'm trying to place its direction when something smashes into my ribs, knocking the wind out of me. A rock. Stone must have hit the same one.
A white hand appears in the current. I grab it and pull, then wind the bow rope tightly around the wrist. Now at least we are riding the river together, and will share the same fate.
"Thanks," says Stone, his face a gray blur beside mine.
"Are you h-hit bad?" I ask, trying to control my voice.
"Bad enough. I don't think it hit bone, though."
"Shouldn't we get in the kayak?"
He shakes his head. "We'll have to beach it to get in. Another forty yards or so."
It's tough to judge distance in the dark, so I count to ten before I start kicking toward the left bank, watching for a suitable place to land. My kicks seem futile against the power of the river; we're like cars trapped in the center lane of an interstate, slaves to the main current.
"Get over!" Stone commands. "Hurry!"
At last a broad shelf of rock rises out of the river like a ramp, and it's simple enough to float the kayak up onto it. Stone lets the current wash him up onto his back, then lies there, wheezing for air.
"What do we do?" I ask.
"G-get in. Keep going."
"Town. Six miles south."
"Listen, Cage. The river's at flood. We're moving faster than you think. And it's a good thing, because we've got to beat those bastards back to town."
"But they can drive." I clench my arms over my chest in a vain effort to stop shivering.
"They had to abandon their vehicles just like you. They've got to cover three miles on foot before they can drive. In the snow. We can beat them if we hurry. You ever been on white water?"
It's been ten years since I've been in a raft, and on that trip my guide went overboard and got crushed between the raft bottom and some rocks, breaking his leg in three places.
"A long time ago."
"The Slate is easier to run at flood than at low water. But we've got two trouble spots. Both slot canyons. The first one's up ahead. It's a class-five vertical drop, but the floodwater should shoot us right over it."
An image of an eight-foot waterfall flashes into my head, the one I saw while trudging up to the cabin this afternoon. In my desperation to escape the guns, I somehow suppressed this memory. But that's what Stone is talking about. Going over that falls in a plastic boat.
"Just grab the sides of the kayak," he says, "lean back, and pray. I'll handle the paddle. A mile farther on is the second one. Walls higher than you can reach, ending in a tight chute that's like a piledriver. People drive their four-wheelers out there to watch the kayakers crash."
He grabs my windbreaker with a weak grip. "If I was covering the river, that's where I'd wait. It'd be tough shooting, though. We'll come through that second chute like a runaway freight train, and if we clear it, we'll be okay all the way to town. They won't be able to find us in the dark."
"This river goes through town?"
He grins. "Right through it. Let's get this bus on the road."
I slide the kayak down the rock ramp until the current is tugging it, then grab Stone by the belt buckle and manhandle him over the side near the stern. He goes rigid with pain when his buttocks hit the rock through the air-filled floor of the boat, but there's nothing to be done. I drag the kayak the rest of the way clear, then roll over the side and into the bow.
Immediately the main current has us, pulling us to its center, gathering speed as the rising banks constrict the water in its headlong flight to the first canyon. I get to my knees and try to obey Stone's barked orders-Lean left! Lean right! Right again!-as he expertly handles the paddle. Every twenty yards or so the bow lifts out of the water and slaps back down with a combative thunk.
"I hear the drop," Stone says from the stern. "Lean left. We've got to stay in the channel."
I don't hear what Stone hears, but the black trough beneath us bears steadily left, and my forward line of sight has gone black. Then, slowly, the sound registers on my traumatized eardrums, like holding my ear to the biggest conch shell in the world. Fear balloons in my chest, pressing my heart into my throat.
I don't think Stone's paddle is affecting the course of the boat anymore. I feel like I'm trapped in a roller coaster as it tops its highest incline and tips slowly forward, headed for the long vertiginous fall. On both sides, walls loom out of the dark, near enough to touch.
Then we are airborne.
"Lean back!" yells Stone as the kayak is hurled forward into space. I obey out of pure instinct, my stomach flying up my throat as the bow plummets down a thundering pipeline of water and smashes into something I cannot see, then bounces up into a roiling mass of foam and spray.
"We're clear!" he cries. "One down!"
We're back in the main current, riding as smoothly as a subway car on a scheduled run. The walls of the canyon have fallen away, and the sky above us has widened into a starry blanket that gives the snowy riverbanks a silver sheen.
For ten minutes we slide along as though on a Nile cruise, but every so often a stand of spruce near the river's edge reminds me just how fast we are moving. The farther we go, the more the valley widens around us, until it seems we are floating across a vast desert of snow. On another night this might seem an ideal time for Stone and me to talk, for him to tell me what to watch for ahead, or to discuss the eternal subjects like women and time. But tonight all we can do is shiver in the wind, chilled so deeply that if we don't find warmth and shelter soon, we could die from exposure.
Almost without our noticing, the banks begin to rise again. It feels like the river is cutting its way into the earth, carrying us with it on its darkening journey. The sound of the turbulent water grows as the walls rise, like the sound of a great beast waking from a long sleep.
"It's coming," Stone says from behind me. "Listen."
Only the center of the stream is smooth now, a black torrent rushing through the narrow canyon, throwing off a mist of silver froth and spray. The kayak hurtles down this black tunnel like it's on rails, but of course it's not. If the bow gets turned around, we could spin out of control and be smashed on a rock, or capsize and be pinned by an inescapable hydraulic.
"Lean right!" Stone yells.
The kayak's nose pulls left, then slingshots around a bend, its fabric skin scraping the rock wall with a resilient wail.
"Shit! They're covering the chute!"
It's difficult to judge distance in the dark, but about a hundred yards ahead of us, a pair of headlights slices downward and across the narrow river, bright as a bonfire in the dark. And where those lights wait, guns are waiting too.
"We can't make it past that!" I shout toward the stern. "We've got to get out!"
"Too late. We're in the canyon."
A jet of fear flushes through my system. I feel like a steer being driven into a slaughter chute. "We've got to get out of the kayak, then!"
"We can't run the chute without it."
I turn in disbelief, but all I see is Stone's solemn face as he expertly wields the paddle.
The current continues to accelerate as the river is forced into an ever narrowing channel. The lights are only seventy yards away now.
"They won't see us until we're right on top of them," Stone assures me. "We'll be moving so fast, they'll only have a couple of seconds to fire."
"What if they have automatic weapons?"
"We need suppressing fire. Can you handle a rifle?"
I don't bother to answer him. If we go through that chute in this kayak, we'll be cut to pieces by anyone sighting down the beams of those headlights.
"Cage? Are you listening?"
As the lights loom closer, a bowel-churning roar reverberates between the walls. One thing I remember my raft guide telling me-just before he broke his leg-was that some white-water guides train by floating rivers wearing only life vests. If they can do that in preparation for making a living, Stone and I can do it without vests to save our lives.
"I said, take this rifle!" he yells.
Without hesitation, I throw myself onto the right gunwale of the kayak and press down with all my weight. Stone screams like a madman, but I ignore him, leaning harder and farther forward until the first rush of water surges over the side.
"Stop it, you damn fool!"
And then it is done. The inflatable tube that forms the right gunwale digs beyond the point of no return, and the river pours into the boat, swamping us in seconds. The shock of the cold water steals my breath again, but I roll over the side and into the main current.
The kayak is still floating upright-if mostly submerged-but Stone won't be able to get it above water without my help. At last he heaves himself over the rear gunwale and into the river. As soon as he's clear, the inflatable rises in the water. With a powerful wrenching move I flip it upside down in the current. When I let go, the buoyant craft rights itself as though nothing had happened.
"You stupid son of a bitch!" Stone appears beside me like a man in the last stages of drowning, his eyes furious points of light in the darkness.
I don't reply. The water is driving toward the chute with the momentum of a locomotive, Stone and me and the kayak bobbing along in it like fishing corks. I've got to slow us down a little, put us a few seconds behind the kayak-
A sledgehammer blow to the chest stops me dead in the water. Purely out of instinct, I grab whatever hit me and reach out for Stone with my legs. An explosive grunt sounds beside me as Stone collides with the object, and I lock my legs around his waist.
It's a tree trunk. A trunk the width of a man's thigh and smooth as glass, wedged into a crack in the ledge from which it fell. The river is trying to rip Stone's body from between my knees, but I hold him fast. With a supreme effort, I flex my stomach muscles and pull him higher in the water.
"Grab the tree!" I gasp. "Grab the tree!"
He drapes one arm over it, loses his grip, then at last manages to get both arms over the trunk.
"Can you hold yourself?" I ask, my legs burning from exertion.
He nods weakly, his face white.
As soon as I relax my leg muscles, the river sweeps both our bodies up onto the surface, holding us in near-horizontal positions. Forty yards away, halogen headlights illuminate a thirty-foot stretch of the chute like searchlights.
"Boat! Boat!" screams a voice from the roar at the end of the little canyon. A voice from the lights.
The illuminated water in the chute churns into boiling chaos as hundreds of bullets shred its surface. The kayak materializes in the headlights as though by magic and instantly explodes into confetti that sails through the bluish beams like the remnants of a child's balloon.
"Christ," Stone coughs.
"Listen," I hiss in his ear, hoping my raft guide knew what he was talking about. "You go through feet first. On your back, feet first, okay? That cushions the rocks."
He nods, his face looking bloodless in the dark.
"How long can you hold on?"
"Twenty seconds… maybe thirty."
"Then we might as well go now. Save our strength."
Stone nods, his eyes closed.
"Have you still got your pistol?" I ask.
"In my waistband."
"Let's do it. On three. One… two… three-"
Letting go of the tree trunk is like surrendering to a god, so mighty is the force carrying us down the chute. Yet the water around us seems placid. At the center of the channel there is no white water, no churning froth or spray, just a great black mass of fluid driving forward with unstoppable power. Stone falls slowly behind me as we hurtle toward the headlights, but I can't worry about him now. I can't worry about anything. I suppose I should pray or vomit from fear or see my life pass before my eyes, but I do none of these things. At some point, terror becomes so total and control so minimal that you simply shed fear like a coat.
I lie back in the water as though going to sleep, only my face above the surface, my arms held out from my sides like Christ on the cross as I rush feet first toward the great black door at the end of the chute. The inverted bowl of sky sparkles with more stars than I have seen in years, and I feel a sudden and absurd certainty that whatever is about to happen happened a long time ago.
As the headlights white out the sky above me, I expel all my air and let my head sink beneath the torrent. I am nothing to those above me, a ripple of water sweeping beneath them, a piece of driftwood borne on the flood.
Suddenly, the black tide swells beneath me, lifting me toward the sky like a magic carpet. Thunder roars around me, atomizing the water to mist. There is no air here, only different states of water. I am suspended long enough to hear bursts of gunfire behind me. Then a great fist slams me to the bottom of a well and holds me there, trying with all its power to bludgeon me unconscious. My lungs scream as they did the day I dragged Ruby from our burning house, but I dare not breathe. To breathe here is to join the hammering darkness.
As suddenly as before, the great hand hurls me up out of the well and onto the surface, which feels land solid after the vaporous thunder of the chute. I feel as though some great beast had sucked me into its maw, chewed me for a few moments, and, finding me distasteful, spat me out whole.
The air feels warm against my face. I probe my arms and legs, searching for broken bones. Remarkably, I seem intact. Turning back toward the thundering mist, I watch the exit of the chute, a white mouth spitting foam between two rock walls like the jet of a great hose. Surely Stone has passed through by now, though not, I fear, as invisibly as I did. The gunfire I heard must have been directed at him.
I try to tread water, but my strength is gone. I can only lie back and float, nose and mouth above the surface, waiting for some sign that Stone survived. An image of his bullet-riddled body bobbing up beside me flits through my head, but I quickly banish it. My odds of surviving the night up here without him are very low.
Stone will come. If anything, the ex-FBI man is tougher than I. He is nearly seventy, yes. And he's wounded. But it's not as though physical prowess of any degree could affect one's fate while passing through that cataract. Stone's fate is in the lap of the gods.
"Swim, goddamn it."
For a dazed moment I think I am talking to myself, but I'm not. Stone has kicked up beside me like a shipwrecked sailor, looking more dead than alive.
"Did they hit you again?"
His eyes are only half open. "Kick your feet, Cage. We've got another half mile to go."
"Why not get out here?"
"Too close… kick, damn you."
I start kicking, and soon enough the current is carrying us along as steadily as it did behind Stone's cabin, though more slowly. The river has spread out here. Shrubs and boulders sail past us in the moonlight, while smaller rocks abrade our knees and elbows. Stone grips my windbreaker and speaks as we drift along.
"Crested Butte is three miles south. We can't stay in the river without the boat… too cold. And I can't run. I'm not dying, but I can't run. There's a campground up here. When we get close, you're going to get out on the south bank. Right now they're stuck north of the river. Follow the river south, running as fast as you can, hugging the bluff for cover. When you see the lights of town, circle to your right and come in from the south, in case they're waiting for you."
"I'm not leaving you here. You-"
"We haven't got time for this! You want a bar called the Silver Bell. It's just off the main street, Elk Avenue. The bartender is a mountain of a guy called Tiny McSwain. In my drinking days we got pretty tight. Tell Tiny to take you to an airport. Any airport but the one you flew into. Still got your wallet?"
I grab my hip pocket. "Still there."
I nod. I brought two thousand dollars in hundred-dollar bills for just this reason, so I couldn't be traced by credit card charges.
"You may have to hide out until you get a morning flight. Denver maybe. Do whatever you have to do, but stay out of sight."
A yellow light appears from the darkness ahead, hovering in the air to my right, about fifty yards away.
"That's the campground," Stone says. "Come on."
We separate and fight our way to the south bank. As my hands collide with cold rock, I hear a screech of brakes ahead. Crawling out of the water, I realize my legs are nearly numb.
"They must have driven like banshees to get here that fast," Stone says through rattling teeth. "Tear off a piece of your shirttail."
In my weakened state, tearing the soaked cotton is like trying to rip a phone book in half. As I struggle with the hem, Stone jabs a stick through a stretched-taut place and rips off a long piece.
"What do you want me to do? Make a surrender flag?"
He hands me the fabric and rolls over on his stomach. "Wad up a hunk of that and jam it into my wound."
I tear off most of the shirttail and squeeze it into a tight wet tennis ball of cloth, then crouch over Stone's back. Garbled voices float to us from the direction of the campground.
"Where are you hit?"
"Left cheek of my ass. Took out a plug of muscle, I think."
I feel along his left buttock until my fingers mush into a warm opening. Stone doesn't even flinch. The hole is ragged, but it runs across the buttock at an angle, like a deep grazing wound. The swelling below it is considerable, though, and it's bound to get worse now that he's out of the cold water.
"Hurry!" he grunts.
I squeeze the cloth into a tighter ball and hold it against the opening. "Ready?"
In one hard stroke I depress the cloth into the hole as he tenses beneath me. It reminds me of helping my father pack a decubitus ulcer when I worked for him in high school. Now I need something to hold the packing in the wound. Removing my soaked windbreaker, I pull off what's left of my shirt and slide it under Stone's left leg, then tie it over the hole.
"That's the best I can do for now," I tell him, pulling my jacket back on.
"What's the name of the bar?" he asks, rolling over. His face is even whiter than before.
"The Silver Bell. Bartender's Tiny McSwain."
"Good. Move your ass, kid."
"What are you going to do?"
He drops one hand to his waist, where the butt of his.45 glints dully in the dark. "Slow those bastards down for you."
"I'll stay and help you, damn it."
"You can't help me. You don't have a gun. You'll help me by getting your ass back to Mississippi and nailing Portman's hide to the barn wall."
The old agent grips my arm with more strength than I thought he could possibly have left. "No matter what you hear, keep running. I mean that. If it sounds like the goddamn O.K. Corral up here, you keep running until you reach that bar."
"There's only one way I'll go."
"If you promise to testify."
His laughter is full of irony. "Boy, if I survive this night, wild horses couldn't stop me from testifying. Portman gave the order for these sons of bitches to kill us because he thought I was going to testify. Well, now he's right. If I'm alive, I'll get to Mississippi. I'll drag Portman's ass down from the mountaintop if I have to tear the whole mountain down with him. Marston too. Now, get your ass out of here."
I get to my knees and look through the trees to the south.
"Don't come back," Stone says quietly. "Not with Tiny or the sheriff. After you leave, everybody up here but me is a target. That's how I want it. The whole thing'll be over by the time anybody could get here, and if I don't come out on top, whoever came would die for nothing. If you come back, I'll shoot you myself."
I grab his upper arm. "The trial starts in thirty-six hours. You get your ass back to Mississippi. You owe it to Del Payton."
He nods in the dark. "That I do, Cage. That I do."
My run to the town is a benumbed nightmare of falls and slides and collisions with trees, an endless march into a killing wind, but I never consider resting. Dwight Stone is offering up his life to cover my escape.
The first gunshot echoes down the valley behind me as the glow of Crested Butte appears like a mirage in the distance. All my instincts say, turn around, go back, and help Stone. But the old soldier's tone of his last order keeps me going. Over rock. Through snowdrifts. Past a black mirror of a lake. Through thickets, thorns. Plodding forward into the relentless wind, ever forward, until at last I am sliding down a white slope toward a geometric heaven of lights and warmth.
When I reach the level of the buildings, I circle to my right in a broad arc that takes me around to the south entrance of town. Muted television dialogue drifts on the air, and the occasional sound of a car motor rumbles from between the buildings.
Crested Butte looks less like a cowboy town than a nineteenth century New England village plopped down in the mountains. The buildings along Elk Avenue have Victorian facades, and flowers line every street and window box. The windows are mostly dark, but as I move along the street, a shopkeeper backs out of a doorway, gives me a furtive glance, then locks his door and hurries to a truck parked across the street.
Twenty yards farther on, a yellow funnel of light appears down a side street to my left, illuminating a wooden bell painted silver. I turn down the alley and crunch through the snow as fast as my tingling feet will carry me.
The Silver Bell has old-fashioned swinging doors. It's a rustic place that caters to locals, not a "ski bar" fluffed up for the tourist trade. There are three people sitting at the bar and two loners at the tables. All look like serious drinkers. Behind the bar stands a giant of a man with a gray-flecked black beard.
He has to be Tiny McSwain.
As soon as he sees me, he moves around the bar as though to throw me out. Before he can, I hold up my hands and croak:
"If you're Tiny McSwain, Dwight Stone sent me."
He stops, his eyes narrowed. "Who are you?"
"Better for you if you don't know. Stone told me you'd help me."
"Somebody heard shots up near the mesa," he says suspiciously. "Was that Dwight?"
"It was the people trying to kill him. Him and me both."
"I'll call the sheriff. Where's Dwight?"
"He's back by the creek. He told me not to call anybody. He said everything would be over by the time anybody could get to him, and if not, they'd get killed for nothing."
"Those his words?"
Tiny nods. "Then we don't call anybody."
"There are at least two men up there, probably more."
"Stone's a tough old boy. What did he tell you to do?"
"He said tell you to take me to an airport."
"Denver. And he said do it quick."
Tiny motions for a T-shirt-clad woman at a table to get behind the bar, then takes a set of keys from his pocket. "Let's go, friend."
"Hey," calls the woman. "Where are you going, if anybody asks?"
"If anybody asks, me and this guy went back up the Slate to help Dwight." Tiny McSwain looks at his customers, who are staring indifferently at me. "Nobody else says different."
Blank nods from the drinkers.
"My Bronco's parked out back," he says. "Let's go."