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She saw ice begin to form at her fingertips, and then frost race down her arm. Not again. Not this time. She felt her arms move. She called more magic to her. The ground froze. She drew on everything she had as Facestealer walked as if he was taking a stroll. She felt her ring—the Everfreeze Ring emitting cold on her finger. She pulled from it. And the ice grew. It pushed her hands up.
Ceria shook as she stood. But she did stand. And the ice covered her legs, locking them in place. Ceria turned. She lifted her arm. Facestealer was peering at Mrsha. It was a monster to inspire nightmares. This time—she raised her voice. Facestealer turned. Ceria fired an [Ice Spike]. Straight between its hollowed eye sockets. The javelin of ice flew straight as an arrow. And broke. Ceria wavered. Then she raised her skeletal hand and loosed another [Ice Spike].
It struck Snatcher in the center of his chest. Again, it broke without leaving so much as a scratch. He stared at her. The half-Elf panted with the effort of keeping her arm raised. She concentrated. She had to stop him!
His body was dark brown. Hide of some kind. But it looked lumpy. And in parts, the hide was missing, revealing a yellow interior. Or skin? Ceria focused on that. She shifted her aim as Snatcher began to shuffle towards her casually. This time she fired five [Ice Spikes], one from each finger. It was a bad shot. But the last hit one of the yellow patches on his body. The tip of her spear of ice struck and dug in ever so slightly.
Ceria saw black liquid run from the wound. And like that, the paralysis inhibiting her vanished. And Facestealer paused. But Ceria felt a wave of terrible fury coming from it. It looked at her. Then Snatcher raised its oversized arms and charged Ceria without a word, incredibly fast. She backed up and screamed. She saw the Gnolls stirring in their cages. Ceria raised her hand but Snatcher was fast. It swung at her and Ceria dove. She felt something pass over her head.
She rolled, conjured a wall of ice. Before it had finished rising something smashed straight through it. Ceria scrambled back. Snatcher stood over her. It swung one arm and Ceria saw it pass inches from her face. She raised a trembling hand, and then someone smashed into Facestealer from the side. The Minotaur could barely stand. He hit Snatcher with a roar, not having bothered to draw his axe.
Snatcher held still as the Minotaur struck him, at least three hundred pounds of weight behind his charge. Calruz bounced off and stumbled back. He stared at Snatcher and the headless monster stared back. Calruz backed up, fumbling for his axe. The other Raskghar and Cave Goblins were rising, some half-collapsing. Facestealer turned around as if surveying the situation. It swung its arms and Ceria felt her body deaden.
Half of the camp fell back again, limp. But the effect was weaker. Calruz bellowed. He had his axe in his hand. He raised it and shakily slashed at Facestealer. The blow was slow, weak. It stared at Calruz and then turned. Back to Ceria. Ceria pointed and formed a double-layered wall of ice, at least five feet thick.
Snatcher walked forwards. He paused at the wall and drew his torso-head back. He brought it forwards and smashed through the wall. Then he swung at Ceria. Ceria jumped backwards as the claw came hurtling towards her. She felt the impact—something compressed her side and then—and then she was weightless. Ceria gaped, half-turned as she felt herself flying—. And fell. Twenty feet. Ceria landed on the ground and heard something scream. A Raskghar. She would have screamed too, but pain overwhelmed every part of her.
She felt something moving under her. Ceria gaped, and then reached for a healing potion. She had to—had to—. The bottle smashed as she squeezed it tight. She ignored the glass biting into her hand, let it pour over her body. Her torn flesh began to knit.
She felt the pain lessening. Then she managed to scream. Another potion. Ceria had two. She grabbed the other and drank it. Her bones were cracking. She rolled as the Raskghar screamed and pushed her off. Ceria stood—and saw chaos. The Raskghar and Cave Goblins surrounded Snatcher. It was turning, slashing with its claws. Every time it did, Raskghar and Cave Goblins died. Facestealer grabbed—and three Cave Goblins were headless.
And the weapons of the Raskghar and Cave Goblins did nothing to it! And as it turned, some of them collapsed. She pointed her finger shakily at Snatcher, saw Calruz bellowing. Raskghar tried to obey him. Ceria saw them shooting arrows, but half of them were too weak to move. The arrows landed short of their target or struck the Raskghar and Cave Goblins around Facestealer.
He turned and swept his hand. Six Raskghar and Cave Goblins died, bodies broken like twigs. He turned—. And another [Ice Spike] struck him on his yellowed weak spot. Ceria pointed at him, trembling. The Minotaur rushed forwards. He walked through them, swinging his arms, slaughtering them. Ceria aimed for his yellowed flesh, but this time the monster blocked the [Ice Spike]. She was backing up when an arrow struck Snatcher from behind, striking his yellowed flesh. The monster turned.
A group of Raskghar with bows was taking aim at him from the far wall. They were shaky, but far enough from him that they could use their arms. They loosed a hail of arrows which bounced off his skin. But a few struck his exposed flesh. Facestealer began striding towards them, and then turned as Ceria landed another shot from behind. He turned towards her, and the Raskghar shot again.
Turn, shoot, turn, shoot. Ceria almost wanted to laugh. But it would have been hysterical laughter—Snatcher was almost comical in how he moved! He went after whomever had wounded him last! Then her laughter caught in her throat as he turned and beheaded a Raskghar.
He stared at the shocked face and carefully opened his sack. Then he turned around. He seemed to realize he was being struck. He turned to Ceria and she felt a chill. Facestealer stared at her for ten long seconds as Raskghar and Cave Goblins battered him from all sides. Then he turned. Raskghar collapsed around him. Facesnatcher strode towards one of the entrances. He stopped there, turned, stared at Ceria, and then vanished into the darkness.
He left a trail of black liquid. It might have been blood. And then it was over. Ceria stared at the empty spot where Snatcher had been. She realized that the Raskghar camp was completely still. All the Raskghar and Cave Goblins were staring at the same spot. The Raskghar and Cave Goblins jumped and stared at Ceria. As if memorizing her face.
Tend to the wounded. Someone—open the supply of healing potions. Double—no, triple the sentries! Ceria whirled. She saw the Gnoll cages had been forced open. The Gnolls were gone! Some of them. A few were lying on the ground, pinned by Raskghar. Most were still in shackles. But many of the Gnolls had removed their shackles!
And Mrsha! Ceria dared to hope. But then she saw Calruz striding towards her. Ceria held still as Calruz roared at her. The Minotaur pointed furiously towards the cages. His grip tightened and Ceria braced herself. I told you the truth, Calruz! Mrsha can only howl. Or make sounds. They were turning red—but then he paused. A curious, affronted look replaced the enraged expression on his face. The Minotaur and half-Elf stared at each other. The exchange was furious, tense.
But familiar. After a second, Calruz let go of Ceria slowly. They stared at each other. Ceria was breathing hard. She pointed at the splatter of black liquid where Facestealer had been. He sometimes approaches Raskghar camps. They can usually deceive him into leaving by pretending to be statues.
They stared at each other for a long moment. Then Calruz turned. He looked around his camp and exhaled. Ceria prayed he was wrong. Calruz stomped away. She saw him begin organizing his camp, directing the Cave Goblins and Raskghar to physically seal the entrance that Snatcher had left by. The mood in the camp was tense, afraid. And angry. The Raskghar forced the remaining Gnolls, barely twenty now, back into the cages, beating them as if to punish them for Mrsha.
The beast-people turned away sullenly and the Gnolls lay in the cages. The Raskghar turned, disbelieving, as one of the Gnolls sat up. Still, she grinned at the Raskghar as they snarled at her. She lifted her shackled hands, pointed. But she is your doom. White fur. You are doomed! Your tribe will end!
That is fate! She brought it on you! Mrsha, the child of omens! A Raskghar bounded over and kicked the Gnoll in the chest. She curled up, choking, until Calruz himself threw the Raskghar back. Then both Gnolls and Raskghar were silent. When they did, the Raskghar howled and gathered anxiously at the entrance to their camp, hearing them coming. Ceria ran forwards, heart beating in fear. She heard Calruz roar, saw the Raskghar make grudging way for him—. And then she saw Mrsha.
The awakened Raskghar looked displeased. She growled as she walked into the camp. She had Mrsha, and the Raskghar behind her looked wounded. Had they fought monsters? Or had the Gnolls managed to fight them off? Where were the others? He strode towards Nokha, hand opening and closing as she slung Mrsha into one of the Gnoll cages with the others.
Nokha turned. Her expression was furious. This one ran other way! We caught! Would have caught others, but strange monsters stopped us! Goblins but not Goblins! Ceria listened with disbelief and bated breath as Nokha described their encounter with the Redfang Hobs. When Calruz realized what Nokha had to be describing he snorted dismissively. Nokha lashed out at the nearest Cave Goblin scurrying around her in fury. The Goblins shrank back as the Raskghar growled at them.
Calruz shook his head. This must have been a group that wandered into the dungeon. Good fighters, for scum. You should have overwhelmed the five! Calruz snorted. He cast his eyes towards the eastern entrance to the camp and Ceria saw more Raskghar dragging or carrying limp Gnolls. Think, fool! At least the others caught more than a single Gnoll child.
The awakened Raskghar bared her teeth as she pointed at Mrsha. The other Gnolls were shielding her from sight protectively. I am Chieftain and I say if we sacrifice any Gnoll! He locked eyes with Nokha. The air grew tense again and the Raskghar around Nokha grew still.
The eighteen awakened Raskghar stared at her. Three had died to Snatcher. Nokha glanced around, her expression savage. Then she seemed to note the dead Raskghar and Goblins. Snatcher had barely fought save to defend himself and still a score of corpses lay on the ground.
She glanced at Calruz and inclined her head ever so slightly. Calruz stared at her back. His hand clenched in anger and his brows drew together, but he seemed to think twice about calling her back. He turned to look at Ceria. He stomped off to shout at the Cave Goblins and Raskghar laboring at the entrance.
Ceria watched him go and then looked around. The air in the camp was tense. And they were already chafing at his restrictions. They kept staring at the remaining Gnolls. And the awakened Raskghar, led by Nokha? They were looking at Calruz. Not fearfully, but with a calculating look in their gazes that made Ceria shiver. She stared at the remaining Gnolls in cages and at Calruz. The Minotaur looked around.
He could sense it too. He adjusted the axe strapped to his back and stood taller. The Raskghar obeyed. Ceria was certain now. She looked around, and then backed up to the cages. The Gnolls looked up at Ceria. The Gnolls nodded. Ceria hesitated, and then bent. Pretending to inspect Mrsha, she concentrated. A little fiery bug crawled out from her hands. It fluttered upwards, vanished, carrying a message for Pisces. The Gnolls stared at the fiery bug as it disappeared.
They looked at Ceria. She gave them a slight nod and straightened. None of the Goblins and Raskghar around her had noticed. But then she turned and saw one of them staring at her. The Raskghar had snuck up on her from the side! She stared at the Gnolls and Ceria. Instead, she locked gazes with Ceria and smiled. The half-Elf met her gaze. She gave Nokha a frozen smile. Erin Solstice paced back and forth in her inn. She had a plan. It was a good one, or at least, it was simple.
The best plans were simple. Chess was an ever-moving game of attack and defense and opportunity. You had to think a hundred moves ahead of your opponent. That was why computers were so good. But her plan had only one moving part.
It would work. But first, Erin had to know where the Raskghar camp was. And for that, the Redfang Warriors had to return. It had been four hours. Pisces had gone out with Yvlon and Ksmvr to bring back the Gold-rank adventurers. Erin looked at her.
Lyonette stared past Erin. Apista buzzed around her anxiously. Yeah, crackers and meat and cheese. Just have a few bites, Lyonette. Erin tried to encourage the young woman. Maybe not? Well, she was in better shape than Lyonette. Erin stared back towards the Goblin cave. Then she heard a shout from outside her inn and whirled. The rain pounded her face. She blinked, nearly cut herself as she went to wipe her face, and then saw the boats.
The Gold-rank adventurers had returned! And they had brought—. Two of the Hobs looked up. Headscratcher tried to rise, but Rabbiteater forced him down. The boat rocked as he leapt out of it and began swimming to shore. But another group was heading straight for Liscor. And in them—. Erin stared in disbelief.
Yes, some of the boats had Gnolls in them! They huddled together, staring around. The Gold-ranks were escorting them to Liscor and a cry went up from the walls. Erin saw more boats headed her way. The Horns and Halfseekers rowing boats with Gnolls in them.
And Cave Goblins. And the Redfangs. Erin stared at all of the Gnolls, looking for a flash of white. For a second the [Innkeeper] wavered, but then she realized Yvlon was right. She turned and ran into her inn as Rabbiteater ran up the slope. Erin met word with action. She grabbed her crate of potions and ran out with it. The adventurers were still rowing towards her boat. Erin threw a potion through the air.
The glowing potion flew straight at Pisces who ducked. Yvlon fielded the bottle and yanked the cork out. And the Gnolls looked half-dead. The Gnolls in the boat were rousing themselves. Some looked at Lyonette and shook their heads, but one, an older, grey-haired Gnoll with red stripes, spoke weakly. She distracted the Raskghar. To save us. She freed us too. She is alive, we think. Lyonette stared in horror at the Gnoll.
The adventurers ran their boats aground and leapt out. The Gnolls had exhausted the last of their energy fleeing from the Raskghar and now, in safety, could barely move even with the stamina potions. Erin changed the door from her cave to Liscor and had to step back as the Watch and Gnoll families flooded into her inn. She opened her pantry and soon the Gnolls were eating small portions. Eat only small bits. And we must check you for broken bones and other injuries.
The healing potions will not heal everything. They may make some things worse, but the adventurers have taken care not to heal wounds incorrectly. They ate slowly, some surrounded by their loved ones. Many were in tears as they ate simple foods. The Raskghar thought her mute, but she howled and brought the monster down on them. We fled in the confusion, but Mrsha, she ran back when it became clear the Hobs would fall. She bought us all time to flee. Lyonette buried her head in her hands, weeping.
Erin stared at the Hobs. They were intact, although Headscratcher was still weak. None of them could meet her eyes. The ritual—it must be stopped. And the Minotaur is insane. I saw him beat the half-Elf when she tried to stop him. But I think—I think neither will be alive much longer. The awakened are too intelligent.
They will dispose of both if they are not stopped. The Horns and other adventurers exchanged uneasy looks. Zevara just nodded. Another Gnoll spoke up. But I am sure—the Raskghar keep their camps watched. And there are so many. They will surely move their camp tonight. Keldrass pounded a scaly fist into his other clawed hand.
Zevara glanced at him and shook her head. Mister Elirr, I know you and the others must be exhausted. Again, she glanced at the Gold-rank adventurers who looked away. Some of them shook their heads. Elirr bowed his. Is that fine? But it is…what is the word? The adventurers will not take it. And there are many Raskghar. Erin pushed past the crowd and headed to her magic door. She slapped the red mana stone on, opened the door, and strode through.
She heard an exclamation behind her and an oath from Zevara and slammed the door. She looked around. The Cave Goblins looked up. They stared at Numbtongue and raced over. Erin looked around wildly and saw a familiar face. They scrambled back guiltily as Erin marched over. The Hob nodded. The Cave Goblins could understand Erin well enough, probably thanks to Calruz, but the Hob translated with word and gesture so Erin was certain that Pebblesnatch understood every word she said.
She crouched next to the Cave Goblin. They kidnapped Gnolls. The adventurers have been fighting them. So have the Redfangs. But the Raskghar have some of my friends. Two people very important to me. I want them back. Pebblesnatch stared up at Erin with round eyes. She glanced at Numbtongue and at Erin. She nodded hesitantly, but then gave Erin a Goblin shrug. Erin smiled ruefully. Well, there is something. The Redfangs found the Raskghar camp.
And I have a plan to get back my friends. But I need your help. It might be dangerous, but not too much. And it will save my friends. Will you do it, Pebblesnatch? The small Goblin looked alarmed. She looked at Numbtongue. The Hob stared at Erin. The young woman looked from Numbtongue to Pebblesnatch. So long as you can get her there.
Can you? Numbtongue nodded at once. Pebblesnatch began to quiver. She looked at Erin and the [Innkeeper] could tell that Pebblesnatch was afraid to see a Raskghar again. And you—well, your name is actually important. And I know this is a lot. So will you? The small Goblin stared up at Erin. She hesitated. She looked at Numbtongue and the Hob nodded. But the Cave Goblin was still afraid. The young woman stared into hers. She reached into her pocket and pulled something out.
Numbtongue stared at Erin, and his eyes lit up in sudden comprehension. I thought of it myself. Now, I need Pebblesnatch to go now , but we need to time this exactly right. Snatcher may strike at them. I want the watches doubled, but no patrols. Calruz was giving commands like normal. The Raskghar he was addressing bowed its head and moved with speed. Like normal. But the mood in the camp was on edge. But she could tell that the Raskghar were growing discontent. Calruz would have called it insubordinate.
Ceria just thought they were finally confident enough not to need him any longer. And the source of that confidence were the awakened. They were intelligent. They would keep being intelligent when the moons fell. Of that Ceria and Calruz were now sure. The other Raskghar seemed nervous about the absence of the full moon, only one more day away.
But the awakened? They moved about without fear, followed by a pack of lesser Raskghar who ran to fulfill their every whim. And Nokha led them all. It was like two tribes, now, really. Calruz strode about, giving orders, but the awakened did the same. And while they moved when he looked at them and told them what to do, there was an air of…expectancy. As if they were waiting to strike. But they kept watching Calruz for now. Because he was still important.
Ceria saw Nokha listening, pretending to be listening at attention as Calruz dealt with an issue that had reared its head in one of the smaller camps. They say it was adventurers. A few Raskghar were wounded by…arrows? And spells. They thought it minor, but the wounds grew worse. Now many are sick. Ceria felt a bit sick. She knew some adventurers used those tactics, but it was cruel, even against Raskghar. And dangerous. Calruz frowned. That means no one goes in or out. Not Cave Goblins, not Raskghar.
No one touches the sick. Burn the bodies. They tried to argue until Calruz cuffed the scout across the face. He glanced at Ceria as the Raskghar whined and Nokha barked at him sharply. That can help with some diseases, but it might spread the plague faster. And…wash with hot water? If we had an [Alchemist] or [Healer], we might try something. Quarantine the camp. Do as Ceria says.
Damn them. Where are my other scouts? He looked around and stomped towards some Raskghar who were eating by a fire. Ceria and Nokha were left. The half-Elf eyed the Raskghar. The awakened smiled. The Raskghar looked concerned. She glanced swiftly at Calruz and back at Ceria. The half-Elf kept her smiling mask up. We still need. Someone who knows what we do not. Very important. Chieftain is valuable.
Too bad. Unless you want to take his place? Shame about that, especially if you run into something like infected Raskghar, huh? The half-Elf tensed. She raised a fist, but too slow. Nokha leaned forwards—. The action was so surprising that Ceria forgot to hit Nokha. She spluttered and tried to back up, but Nokha licked her across her face. Her tongue was rough and wet. Ceria twisted out of her grip. She wiped at her face.
She backed up and saw Nokha smiling at her. The Raskghar stood back, smiling. Ceria stared at her, and then remembered something about animals. Was that—. Calruz had seen the entire thing. He stormed over and Nokha backed up. The Minotaur snarled at her, much like a Raskghar himself and she backed up.
Calruz roared at her. When the engine quit, the plane splashed down yards from shore. Tony was uninjured, but his co-pilot broke his neck. Tony helped him out of the plane and paddled him to shore, saving his life. Now, 10, feet above sea level in northern New Mexico, Tony tramped into the clearing, the wind stinging the cuts on his face. Blood from the cuts trickled onto the snow at his feet. Clear of the fumes, Tony sparked his lighter. The wind put it out.
He turned around and used his back as a shield, but the flame was snuffed out again. Back in the Bonanza, Tony noticed beads of water forming on the crumpled ceiling—condensation from their breath. He wiped up the drops with a rag, then wrung it out into a can. The ceiling was covered in grease and muck, so the water was filthy. But it was all they had. That night, the storm unleashed another torrent of snow, felling tree branches, ripping power lines, and dropping three feet of fresh powder on Canjilon Mountain.
They included a four-man team from the Los Alamos Ski Patrol, all nuclear scientists at the National Laboratory, trained in first aid, high altitude bivouac, and map and compass reading. There was also a little orange snowcat, on loan from the Los Alamos Fire Brigade, to ferry the ski patrollers up and the Mink family down. The brothers brought four Polaris snowmobiles to help with the search. Gabe had often snowmobiled with the Unsers, but this snow was deeper than he was used to.
Anthony, patron saint of lost things. Then they turned onto a primitive cow trail that Esquibel had recommended, entering Carson National Forest. Terra Incognita, locals still call it. Unknown territory. In his Jet Ranger helicopter, Vern was trying gallantly to get Keven and Ron up Canjilon, flying low through ravines and canyons.
Desperate to find Tony, Keven and Ron scanned below for any strange shapes, movement, or colors. Once, Keven spotted a splotch of red on the snow and asked Vern to circle back. Never troubled by the odds, the Unsers and Gabe were blasting up Canjilon Mountain in hundred-yard increments. One of them would accelerate to full speed, get stuck in the snow, and pull his snowmobile to the side.
Then the next would come blazing by, carving out the next hundred yards. When the cow trail meandered into the trees, the patrollers took the lead, tramping a path for the snowmobiles. It was exhausting work, especially for guys who spent most days cooped up in a laboratory. Their snowshoes sank deep into the powder, never touching firm ground—a sensation akin to walking in flippers in waist-deep water.
At first, the ski patrollers doubted the effectiveness of the snowmobiles—until they saw how well the Unsers handled the machines. Gabe Valdez was the weak link, a short man with a huge upper body, which threw off his balance on snowmobiles.
But the state policeman made up for it in toughness. Come dusk, the searchers agreed to suspend the search until morning. The snowmobiles had lights but the terrain was too treacherous for night-riding. Following their tracks back to Esquibel Ranch took the group 30 minutes. Later that night, as lightning flashed over the nearby mountains and illuminated the two Jet Rangers in the Trails End parking lot, three Cuban men checked into the motel.
He said he was good friends with Tony and he was here to help find him. Jorge had been hospitalized for shock and was still recovering. Even after seeing the storm close-up, Keven remained convinced that Tony and his family were still alive. He could see them. Tony was protective of Chi—he threw out a guest once just for insulting her housework—and he was great with Brian.
Tony was a busy guy, always on the move, juggling projects, but his Brian time was sacred. Once, Keven had stopped by to party and found Tony sitting behind Brian, watching his son play computer games. As the darkness thickened over Canjilon, bringing with it subzero temperatures, Tony lay on top of Brian in the front seats to shield him from the cold and share body heat. Above them, they could hear the dull thud of snow layering on top of the fuselage.
It functioned like a blanket, Tony knew, further insulating the cabin. The same concept applies to a snow cave, which Tony had learned to build back in the Boy Scouts. Tony had stopped looking at it. For Tony, the only relief from the cold and pain were those precious moments of sleep, when his mind drifted off to memories of Chi. She was 17 when they met, living in the train depot her father ran in Richmond, Utah—fed up with her boring town and overbearing mom.
Chi was hiding a little bump under her wedding dress. Tony tightened the blankets around his boy. Tony asked him. A tall, broad-shouldered year-old with a voice that made listeners sit up straight, Curran had been following the search for the missing plane on Canjilon. The fax, from Florida authorities, said the pilot of the Bonanza, Tony Mink, was a suspected air smuggler. Tony had paddled his injured co-pilot to shore on a pound bale of marijuana, and the Royal Bahamian Police discovered seven more bales on the sunken plane.
They arrested Mink, but someone paid his bail and he never returned to the Bahamas. On the fringes of the runway, the contact said, two black cars had pulled up to the Bonanza, maybe to on- or offload items. Before anyone could inquire, Mink had taken off into the storm. For Curran, the signs were clear. There was the missing flight plan and absent ELT, typical of a pilot trying to stay off the radar. And there was the timing. As Curran knew from his own missed St.
A rookie agent answered; all the senior staff were out for the holidays. Back in Santa Fe, Curran received a phone call from a Chama state police supervisor who said there was a rumor going around town of three suspicious Cuban visitors. One of them had called Tony Esquibel and offered to pay any price if Esquibel led his group up to the wreck. Curran had a good read on this Tony Mink. Air smugglers were smart, seat-of-the-pants pilots, difficult to outfox.
He still wanted to rescue the Mink family as quickly as possible. But now, with these Cuban men on the hunt, he wanted to make sure his people got to the wreck first. Battling a blizzard, the searchers took until mid-afternoon to reach the ridge north of Canjilon—the area where the Bonanza had disappeared from radar. They were close now. The terrain had become steeper and more treacherous the higher they climbed, fraught with rocky cliffs and deep arroyos filled with snow.
Gabe Valdez—mounted on his snowmobile—was freezing. Inside, the ski patrollers heated water for Gabe and helped him swap his snow-soaked duds for dry clothes. Then the group sheltered for several hours, as the blizzard raged. By the time they emerged, it was dark. Without injuries, you might have The Bonanza had disappeared hours ago. Forced to suspend the search yet again due to darkness, the group began their descent. Keven remembered. Police had found two concealed rifles in his car while he was driving to Bakersfield, where he and Tony co-owned a gold mining claim as a side gig.
Swaner had helped Keven get the charges dropped. Keven knew Tony, Adam, and Jorge were smugglers. Tony had offered Keven the co-pilot seat first, prior to Adam. But Keven, as Swaner knew, would never betray his best friend. Keven could walk a couple rooms over and clear things up with Adam right now. The Bonanza now lay completely buried in snow, only its V-Tail emerging. To reach the surface, Tony had carved a narrow passageway through the snow from his cockpit hatch to the clearing.
The guilt was agonizing for both father and son. It was just make-believe, Tony knew. The wind had died down, so Tony wanted to see if he could get a fire going outside to melt some snow. But he needed kindling. The wrapping paper and paper towels were in the cracks. He also had his checkbook and his aeronautical maps. And he had the suitcase filled with a quarter million dollars in cash. It was five years earlier. Chi worried about the risks but trusted his decision. The money was great, but after a few years, Tony got tired of the job.
He and his partners—Adam and Jorge—had a string of failed runs, including a crash off St. Thomas and ditching the load in Haiti. And the law was closing in. Then, one night, while Tony was out, three men broke into the house. They flashed badges and handcuffed Chi to a table and went right to the closet where everything was stashed.
Tony had an unlimited capacity for personal risk, but such a risk to his family was unacceptable. After the break-in, he became desperate to get out. So he went back to doing what he did best. He was bringing it to Salt Lake for Swaner to launder into the mining claim that Tony co-owned with Keven.
With his eyes nearly swollen shut and his toes frozen, Tony crawled up his tunnel to the clearing. He scooped up some snow in a can, ripped a check from his checkbook, flicked open his lighter, then set the check on fire under the can, watching the lonely flame crawl slowly up the paper. Nationwide that Wednesday, the arctic storms were growing in size and strength. Hail the size of baseballs pelted Tallahassee. Twisters tore across the Texas panhandle. An Oregon farmer lit fires and held an overnight vigil to save his flock of lambs.
Gus had been calling the Aviation Weather Center for forecasts. Ron, through the window of his motel room, could see that his dad was right: The clouds were stuck to the ground. Frantic, he asked to talk to his mom and told her to call her spiritual group and get a prayer circle going immediately.
On Canjilon that morning, Brian needed to relieve himself, so he and his dad dragged themselves up their icy tunnel to the surface. Brian—lightheaded from a fever and weak from hunger—was too depleted to zip up his snowsuit. Tony noticed it was colder this morning. He figured they had two more days left, maybe three. Tony was ready. But there was Brian. Tony and Chi had lost their first child. He was born premature and died after one day—not long enough to know, but long enough to love, and to name: David.
Three years later, Brian entered their lives. Tony, a college student at the time, would race home between classes and swing his little boy in the air, just like an airplane. Maybe the snowshoes will work, Tony decided.
He could head downhill, find a town or cabin, and fetch help for Brian. He would need to go soon, before all his strength was gone. One last adventure—this time, for his boy. A few hours later, to the north, the clouds lifted over Chama.
Then he turned east toward the mountains, flying low, with white below him and gray above. Vern jumped into the chute, wispy gray on all sides. As the Jet Ranger climbed, the light grew brighter and brighter, and when they emerged at the top, they saw the sun. Above the clouds, they felt a wave of excitement.
Below, they could see the tops of mountains, jutting out of the gray. To Ron, they looked like islands. Vern weighed the risk. This was dangerous business. Vern was getting paid by the hour, but he was under no obligation to find the missing Mink family. Heroically, he pushed up on the left joystick and sped at mph toward Canjilon Mountain.
It sounded close, but Tony knew the pilot would never spot them hidden under the snow. He grabbed the instrument panel's broken-off glare shield, and crawled up his narrow tunnel. He pushed harder, ignoring the pain in his ribs, and finally dislodged it. Free now, he hurtled a few yards into the clearing, through snow up to his forehead. Overhead he could see the Jet Ranger, circling nearby like a tiny robotic bird. He waved the black glare shield frantically.
The chopper looped farther away, then swooped back again. Tony waved the glare shield over his head. But the chopper flew away once more. Vern had it memorized. Below everything was white, even the trees—big white cones reaching up for the chopper. Ron stared into the white, trying to focus his energy. Keven searched the other direction for any movement, any sign of life. Then Keven spotted a dark square shadow on the snow. Most things in nature are rounded off, not square, he thought.
Vern made a steep bank right. Keven spotted a broken-off tree, missing its top third. Vern banked the helicopter, the rotor blades slicing through the stiff, cold air. He brought it around again, not even all the way, then saw something—a small black dot, like a drop of ink on a white sheet of paper. Vern switched over to an official frequency and gave his helicopter number and coordinates. At Esquibel Ranch, the ground volunteers erupted in joy.
Up on the mountain, the snowshoe team could hear the helicopter, a half-mile away. Vern circled around, looking for a place to bring the chopper down. Keven glanced at the square shadow again. It was from the V-tail, he realized, the only thing jutting out of the snow.
The powder was too deep to land.
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