“McCormick! Wake up!”
Mark didn’t want to wake up. But the coughing, the voice – the sound of urgency – roused him from his fevered dreams. “Wh-what?” he mumbled, hoping there’d be no answer.
“C’mon, Mark,” Milt rasped, panting for breath. “Wake up.”
“’M awake,” he groaned. A fit of coughing roused him further and, by the time it was over, he was back in reality and fear clutched at his heart. “Judge?” he demanded, fumbling with the sleeping bag over him. The engine had stopped and he couldn’t hear anything except Hardcastle’s gasping respirations. “Oh, no,” Mark gasped. “No.” One thing. He’d only had to take care of one thing: ration the gas to keep them from freezing, and he’d screwed even that up. They were going to die in this cold, dark hell and it was his fault.
Between coughs, Hardcastle dragged in as much air as he could. “I’m havin’ trouble breathin’, kid.” For the first time, Mark heard fear in Milt’s voice, and it broke his heart.
“Ah, Judge,” Mark breathed, scared and so damned sorry that he couldn’t do anything to make things better. Sending up a desperate prayer, sick with despair, he reached through the darkness. His fingers found Hardcastle slumped against the icy window. Slipping sideways, Mark eased an arm around his friend, and drew him more upright to brace Milt against his chest and help him breathe more easily. “Just take it easy, okay?” he urged.
“Where are we? What’s going on?” Hardcastle demanded, confused and not happy about it. “Why’re we sittin’ in the dark?”
“We’re stuck on a mountain, in a blizzard, and I think we’re both sick,” Mark summarized as succinctly as he could. The details were just too depressing to elaborate but, ashamed he hadn’t been of more use, hadn’t gotten the Judge somewhere safe, he couldn’t stop himself from going on. “I couldn’t see where we were going, and … well, we’re stuck, okay? We’re out of gas and it’s the middle of the night.” He tightened his arms around Hardcastle, and his voice dropped. “I’m sorry, Judge. I … I didn’t know what else to do. There wasn’t any way to … the road was gone. The blizzard ….”
“Shhh, it’s okay,” Milt rasped, and weakly patted his arm. “Not your fault, kiddo. Guess that sidewinder got us after all, huh?”
“Sidewinder?” Mark echoed, and couldn’t help the weak laughter. “Ah, Judge, yeah, guess he found us.” Reaching across the cab, he snagged his own sleeping bag and drew it closer, awkwardly arranging it over the two of them. “But I think it’s the Chatty Kathy old geezer in the general store that done ‘done us in’, Kemosabe.”
Milt snorted, and Mark felt the weak nod against his shoulder. “We’re not dead yet, you know,” Milt argued, but the thin weakness of his voice made Mark ache with sorrow.
“I’m sorry, I should have been able to get you out of here,” Mark whispered, and bent his head until his cheek rested against Hardcastle’s head. The fever was burning hot in both of them and he wondered if that alone could keep them warm enough to get through the night. Could even maybe melt all the snow around the truck, cause an avalanche, that would carry them down to the valley, where someone could find them and –
“Mark? Mark, stay with me,” Milt ordered.
“Huh, what – oh, yeah, I’m here. Just kinda tired.” Mark blinked against the hot burn in his eyes, the internal fire making his skin feel tight. He sighed and then frowned, struck by the sudden thought that this might be the last time they talked. They could freeze to death before morning. All the things he wanted to say flooded his mind, all the regrets and wishes that he’d been better, more deserving of the Judge’s investment … all the thanks, but his throat tightened and he couldn’t seem to get a word out. The struggle made him cough and, when he caught his breath, he was only able to wheeze, “Thanks, Judge.”
“For what? For landing you in this mess?” Hardcastle growled.
Mark smiled into the darkness. Hardcase never quit; he was always ready to fight. “Nah,” he replied. “Just, well, for the money for school. And –”
“You won that money, fair an’ square,” Milt insisted.
“No, you threw the game,” Mark whispered, trying to stay focused but beginning to drift again. “Wish I was worth it. Wish it wasn’t so hard.”
Milt didn’t say anything for long minutes; it seemed to take all his energy to breathe. Mark felt tears sting his eyes. So many regrets but one of them wasn’t meeting this man, even if it had landed him in hell for a couple years. Redemption didn’t always come easy, but it was worth it in the end.
“Stop it,” Milt murmured, sounding far off. “You earned every penny,” he puffed, “and more.” His voice seemed to be drifting farther and farther away. “You’re my best friend … best friend I ever had,” he added. Mark felt a warm glow that had nothing to do with the fever spread through his chest. They were still friends. The money hadn’t ruined everything. “I’m just sorry I got you into this mess, that’s all.”
“S’okay,” Mark replied, feeling a great sadness that it was over, but desperately glad that he was there and that neither he nor Milt were alone. Briefly tightening his grip before he slipped back into fevered dreams, he went on, “’M where I belong. S’alright. You can go back to sleep for awhile. I got your back, Hardcase. Always will. Batman and Robin. Tonto and the Lone Ranger. Tha’s us.”
“Yeah, kiddo, that’s us, alright,” Hardcastle agreed and he again weakly patted Mark’s arm.
Mark tried to stay awake, but he felt Hardcastle relax in his arms. He listened to the Judge breathe, rough and uneasy, and then realized he couldn’t hear the wind anymore. It seemed as though they were cocooned in silence, and maybe also in ice. Vaguely, he wondered if they’d be lost until spring, entombed in steel and snow, but his mind was drifting and his thoughts slipped into the darkness.
The rain stopped around three in the morning, and then the wind dropped about a half hour later. Grateful for the distraction, glad to be able to help in some way, Frank had worked with the rangers through the evening and night. Altogether, twenty-six campers in various stages of respiratory distress were taken to the nearest hospitals. He’d heard that three of the cases were severe enough to be airlifted out, two to San Francisco and one seven-year-old child to Sacramento. He was conscious of time passing and that the window of opportunity to get to his friends before it was too late was inexorably closing.
The clouds over the mountains began to break up around seven AM, just before the thin light of dawn seeped into the eastern sky. In anticipation of being able to go up with the chopper, he immediately headed to the helipad on the roof of the Park’s Headquarters. In the building, on the way to the elevator, he ran into Lew Ferguson, who looked as haggard as Frank felt.
“We should be able to begin a helicopter search in the next half hour or so,” Lew said.
Frank nodded and once again glanced at his watch. “I’m pretty sure it’s been more than thirty-six hours since they would have been in that store.”
Ferguson nodded. “We think they were there around four-thirty Friday afternoon, according to the witness who saw their truck.”
Looking away, Frank took a shuddering breath. “You said … you said we had to get to them within thirty-six hours.”
The Superintendent clapped a reassuring hand to his shoulder. “If we can get the antibiotics into people within that time, all but the most infirm or vulnerable generally fully recover. After that window, the risks of mortality increase. But it’s not a guaranteed death sentence, not yet. We’ll do our best to find them before it’s too late to help them.”
Frank’s throat tightened, exhaustion and fear having eroded his emotional control. He could only nod and rasp a hoarse, “Thanks,” in gratitude for the reassurance and the hope Ferguson was offering him.
Forty minutes later, Frank was sitting behind the pilot in what felt like a Plexiglas ball. The roar of noise pulsing around them from the motor and the rapid, racketing thump-thump of the rotors made it impossible to talk while he and the others silently scrutinized the forest below. Though the storm had ended, and sunlight was now seeping through the breaking clouds, it was still brutally cold. As they climbed higher along the side of the mountain, he could see that the snow was increasingly deeper and weighing more heavily upon the trees. With nail-biting slow and methodical routine, the pilot began quartering one campground after another, but the snow below was an unbroken expanse, even along the narrow, winding road that connected the recreational areas.
Precious minutes ticked past, until they’d been up for a half hour. Frank could feel his anxiety rising. Where the hell were they? He saw downed trees, little more than massive mounds of snow at campsites and along creek beds. He saw washed out bridges and flooded roads. His chest felt tight, and he had to force himself to breathe deeply, to hold onto his increasingly ragged demeanor of calm forbearance.
Nearly an hour crawled past, and still nothing. His palms were damp, and his gut was all twisted up. He had to find them. He couldn’t leave them out there in that frozen wasteland. They were in trouble, and time was fast running out for them. Every minute took them closer to the point of no return.
Finally, Frank spotted a sharp glint of light off a drifted mound in a vast plain of unbroken snow on what was probably the main road between the ranks of trees. He tapped the pilot’s shoulder, and poked the arm of the ranger in front, to get their attention. When the ranger turned, he pointed downward, and the pilot, seeing the gesture, toggled the joystick to fly back around and hover over whatever Frank had seen.
Again, there was a glint of light, sunlight glancing off a patch of glass and chrome. Nothing else was visible of whatever was buried beneath the massive drift. The helicopter hovered for a second before descending, the wind off the powerful blades kicking up clouds of snow. In seconds, they were on the ground and Frank was scrambling out of the chopper and, bent low, running under the rotating blades.
He and the ranger swiftly brushed snow off and away from the truck to gain entry – and Frank’s heart dropped. It wasn’t Milt’s GMC. He paused only long enough to steel himself. The missing female hired gun, Mindy McCready, was probably inside. Swallowing hard, he redoubled his efforts to clear the snow away from the driver’s door, while the ranger worked on the other side. Through glass frosted by cold, he could only see a large, shapeless mound of piled sleeping bags in the middle of the bench seat. The near side of the mound was lightly encrusted with snow that had drifted in through the window which was open about an inch. Frank wrestled the door open. The frozen metal screeched in protest, the horrific sound – almost blasphemous in the suffocating silence of the forest – doubling in intensity as the ranger fought his own door open.
There was no motion from inside. No reaction to the hellacious noise. The mound remained silent and utterly still. Heart in his throat, Frank pulled back the sleeping bag – and could have wept when he found Mark holding Milt in his arms. Swiftly, he and the ranger each felt for a carotid pulse and Frank wanted to shout with joy when he found Mark’s. Glancing at the ranger, hoping against hope, he felt a surge of abject relief when the man nodded. Both of them were still alive.
But they were far from well.
Milt and Mark were barely breathing, and they sounded painfully congested. They were ghost white, as if all the blood had sunk deep inside, to keep their organs warm and functioning, but their skin was hot to the touch.
“How could they have survived?” Frank rasped, feeling a kind of awe that anyone could have lived through the blizzard and brutal cold for so long.
“The snow covering the truck created a kind of cocoon, like an igloo; that kept in whatever heat they had. Sitting like that helped them share and conserve their body heat. Having that window open, even a little, allowed air to filter in to them through the snow.” The ranger paused. “And they were lucky, very lucky.” He waved at the pilot, who raced toward them with canvas stretchers.
Carefully, they eased Milt out of Mark’s arms and onto the stretcher, covered him with a blanket and then with one of the sleeping bags. The ranger and the pilot hastily transferred him to the relative warmth in the back of the helicopter, while Frank began easing Mark out of the truck. The ranger returned to help Frank get Mark into the chopper, gently lowering his stretcher onto the floor beside Hardcastle. There, the ranger fixed masks over their ashen faces and turned on portable oxygen tanks.
In minutes, they were back in the air, flying directly to the hospital in Fresno. The ranger was on the radio, alerting the hospital of their imminent arrival and the condition of the two men.
Frank sat and stared at his friends, willing them to hold on, to not give up now, not when they were so close to medical care and shelter. His brows furrowed in worry. Were they in time? Had either or both men suffered any irreparable damage from the cold, or from the infection that all too clearly was raging within them? Frank had thought finding them would be enough, but he knew now that the struggle for their survival had only just begun.
In twenty minutes, they were circling over the city, swiftly zooming toward the helipad on the top of the hospital. As soon as they landed, medical and nursing personnel rushed forward with gurneys. In seconds, each sick man received a cursory examination and intravenous lines were started. They were transferred onto the metal stretchers and hastily wheeled inside to an elevator that dropped directly to the Isolation Ward on the second floor.
Doctors called out demands for lab tests and x-rays and all the staff wore isolation garb to protect them from the suspected pathogens. As questions about his friends were asked, Frank provided the answers: their names, ages, how long since they’d been exposed to the plague, how long they’d been trapped on the mountain, a quick summary of their general health and a rapid explanation for the various scars that were revealed as garments were stripped or cut away. Everything was happening with incredible speed in what felt like chaos, but Frank knew that each action had a purpose and was directed toward ensuring both his friends survived.
Antibiotics were given intravenously; limbs were checked for signs of frostbite. Frank dared a small smile and felt hope growing, warming him, when nothing beyond the obvious symptoms of the entrenched infection and the gash in McCormick’s side were found. The antibiotics would do battle with the disease, and the reddened wound was deftly cleaned and stitched by one of the doctors.
To Frank’s surprise, a technician also took a sample of his blood. “A precaution,” one of the doctors said, rising from working over Milt. “You’ve been exposed – and from what I’ve heard – repeatedly. We need to make sure you don’t come down with Y Pestis.”
It must have been half an hour later, though it had only felt like seconds, when Milt and Mark were transferred into a semi-private room along the same corridor where other campers who had succumbed to the disease were sequestered for treatment. Frank was told to await the outcome of his blood work in the visitors’ lounge, but he adamantly refused to be separated from his friends. Though the nurses were reluctant, a doctor finally gave approval for him to go into isolation, provided appropriate procedure was followed. He found himself garbed in gown and cap, gloves and mask, and was told in no uncertain terms that he was to remain clad in the gear so long as he was in the room. Depending on the outcome of his blood test, he might or might not find himself admitted before the day was over.
The last twenty-four hours of nearly non-stop action and anxiety hit Frank full force as soon as the adrenaline that had been keeping him going seeped out of his system. Suddenly exhausted, he sank into a chair beside Milt’s bed. “I’m too old for this,” he muttered. Leaning forward, he lightly gripped Milt’s wrist. “Next time, you’re going into a safe house, no discussion. That’s just the way it’s gonna be.”
Wishing the two men would wake up and start bickering with one another, Frank settled back in his chair for however long a vigil it turned out to be.
Mark coughed himself awake. After he got past how much his chest hurt, and how hard it was to catch his breath, he became aware that things had changed. They weren’t in the truck anymore. Not stuck on a damned mountain buried in snow in the cold and dark. Somehow, the truck’s cab had turned into a hospital bed in a room that was blessedly warm. He stared at the ceiling for a long minute while his brain worked its way through the sense of dislocation and the disorientation of not remembering how he’d gotten there.
And then he remembered the Judge.
“Milt!” he gasped through the oxygen mask that covered his face, his gaze immediately raking the room.
“It’s okay, Mark; he’s right here,” Frank said, his voice low and soothing, as if he thought Mark was fragile; so soothing that Mark’s worry escalated accordingly, especially when he saw that the familiar voice came from an alien creature in mask, cap, gown and gloves.
“Frank? How long have we been here?”
“We brought you in by helicopter yesterday morning.”
“Yesterday? How bad is he?” Mark demanded, shifting onto his side to see Hardcastle for himself. Not that there was all that much to see. Milt was also sporting an oxygen mask and his complexion was as gray as it had been in the truck. Despite the head of the bed being raised, the Judge’s respirations sounded clogged, thick and painful. But then, finding himself panting for breath after even so little exertion, Mark realized that he didn’t sound a whole lot better. Wet and heavy, as if they were both breathing through water.
“Bad enough; you, too, for that matter,” Frank replied, sounding almost laconic. “But you’re both here and breathing and I’m grateful for small mercies. You should be, too. If your luck holds, the antibiotics will knock the plague out of your systems and you’ll both be good as new.”
“Plague?” Mark exclaimed, gaping in disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding me. We really caught the plague? From that old storekeeper, right?” Not waiting for an answer, he sagged back onto his pillows and stared at the ceiling. “Plague. Who’d believe it? That’s it. I am never, ever, going camping again. Never. Not even if hell freezes over.”
Frank chuckled. “Famous last words. But think of the great story you’ll have to tell to all the young co-eds.”
Mark frowned at the older man, wondering why he sounded so calm when Mark felt like everything was an unmitigated disaster; well, except for the fact that they were still alive. It took him a minute to realize that Frank wasn’t calm, he was exhausted. “You came after us. Found us,” he said, his voice hoarse from coughing and the dryness caused by the oxygen. “We could still be up there … thanks doesn’t seem like nearly enough.”
Frank waved off the gratitude. “Nothin’ you wouldn’t do for me.” He blinked heavily, as if he was having trouble keeping his eyes open. “Seriously, Mark, it was pretty close. But the doctor thinks you’ll both be okay. You’re on monster doses of antibiotics, and the fever broke for both of you over two hours ago.”
Mark rubbed his eyes, and then his forehead. He had one hell of a headache. “I thought we were going to freeze to death,” he said softly, hardly able to believe they were finally safe and okay.
“The ranger said the snow saved you,” Frank told him. “The whole truck was nearly buried in a massive drift; guess it held heat inside. By the way, whose truck was it? The rangers told me the license plate belongs to a vehicle stolen in San Francisco on Friday.”
“Don’t know their names. Killers, a man and a woman, who came after us.” Mark didn’t really want to think about it.
“Yeah, I guessed that. The guy’s body washed down over a waterfall. But where is she?”
“You didn’t find her?” Mark demanded, and his face scrunched up in distaste. When Frank didn’t bother to answer what was evidently a dumb question and just stared at him with an expression of curious interest, Mark sighed. “Her body is in the back of the truck. Probably frozen solid. She tried to kill us, and she lost.” Thinking about it was making him queasy, so he distracted himself with his concern for Milt. “You sure the Judge is going to be okay?”
“Pretty sure,” Frank replied as he pushed himself to his feet. “You should go back to sleep; best thing for you. I gotta go tell someone to retrieve her body.” Wearily, his shoulders bowed with exhaustion, he turned and left the room.
Mark watched him leave, all the while marvelling at what a good friend Frank was, and how lucky he and Milt were that Frank never gave up on them. Closing his eyes, he thought about how much he admired Frank, and the work he did. Thought how much more useful he’d feel – and how much better he’d probably be at the job – if he gave up on law school and became a cop. But it was only a fleeting thought. So far as he knew, ex-cons couldn’t become cops; there was probably a rule against it.
Besides, he owed it to the Judge to be the best lawyer he could be, to justify Milt’s investment in him.
Finally, the reality that they were safe took hold and he felt himself relax. A brief smile flickered across his lips as he settled back and listened to Milt breathe. Gradually, his own respirations mirrored Hardcastle’s and sleep stole over him.