Kris Franklin
 
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Gravedigger

Gravedigger
A novel by
Kristopher Franklin









September 7
Gravedigger Peak Summit

    “Dammit, Sionna, keep your head down.” Reggie shoved me farther under the granite outcrop. “Just ‘cause he’s after me doesn’t mean he won’t kill you if you’re in the way.”
    I raised up anyway, a quick look in the direction of the last gunshot. Rain changing to sleet stung my face, but not before I saw there was no longer any visibility out there. No way to see where anyone was. Who was okay, who was down . . .
    “I don’t understand this.” The wind roared across me, and I wasn’t sure I could be heard. “What the hell did you do?”
    Reggie leaned closer. “I know it’s not fair. To you or Dan.” Silence for a moment, though nothing was really silent on the summit ridge, not with the storm blasting us like an express train.
Then: “Ever been in eastern New Mexico? Down where the desert first hits the mountains . . .


September 5-6
Approach




                                           One

    Probably I should’ve been keeping a closer eye on Tim Foley . . .
    That was the thought I had when I looked back at him, halfway across the log bridge, stalled in mid-stride, his new hiking boots slipping on the moss-covered surface.
    “Sionna,” he said. I think. I was lip-reading because of the roar from Big Cemetery Creek, ten feet below.
    “Easy, Tim.” I dropped my pack on the uphill side of the log. “No worries.”
    A blatant lie. He was about to get wet – best case scenario – and my going onto the log with him was only going to send both of us into the whitewater, so I started toward the edge of the bluff on my side. I was aware in a peripheral sort of way that my uncle had stepped onto the log.
    “Keep your eyes on me, Tim.” Dan began moving slowly in Foley’s direction. “You’re going to be fine.”
My uncle’s always been an optimist, so if it was another lie, it was an unintentional one.
    “Declan.” He called to his son who was behind Foley by about five feet. “You need to stop where you are.”
    Which was probably news to my cousin, who’d been noodling along at the rear, looking forward to getting the rest of us on the trail so he could take the packhorses upstream to the low water crossing and break out the stash I knew he had baggied up in his pack.
    He stopped. Glanced at me – by this time I was partway down to a flat boulder at the water’s edge – and did one of those whatever gestures with both hands.
    Maybe Foley had forgotten Declan was behind him, and – bigger maybe – he thought my stoner cousin could save him. He tried to turn around and go back.
    His feet immediately slipped again, and his arms began to pinwheel. He lunged and grabbed for Declan’s sort-of extended hand . . .
    A short-armed reach that lacked sincerity.
    . . . just before his right foot shot forward and his left foot sideways.
    “Oh, crap.” More lip-reading. Right before he landed, straddling the log, then toppled into the creek.
    I’d reached the boulder, but when he surfaced he was already past me.
    “Grab the branch!” I ran along the rock, hurdling some other low-lying aspen that wanted to dump me in there with him.
    “Shit!” He flung out one arm and caught hold of a half-broken limb trailing in the shallows. The current yanked his feet downstream, elongating him on the surface.
    “Right behind you, Sionna.” I heard Dan’s voice, calm as always. Those were our clients up there watching, after all, paying customers. So was Foley, in a way.
    Nothing to get excited about, folks.
    Even though the water in Big Cemetery Creek was forty degrees, tops, right out of the permanent glacier below Gravedigger Peak’s north face. Someone failing to get out of it quickly was asking for hypothermia, even someone as naturally well insulated as Tim Foley.
    I lunged out into a near-splits and got one foot on an exposed rock in the stream, then I grabbed Foley’s arm near the elbow. He had close to a hundred pounds on me, and was waterlogged besides, and I had no balance point except for the limb . . .
    “Gotcha.” I felt a hand grab the back of my downfill vest.
    “Yeah?” I kept hold of Foley. “And who’s got you?”
    “Half a million stockholders, Sionna,” Peter Abrams said. “And your uncle. We’re in good hands.
    He was six-four, long and lean – called Spiderman in the Time magazine profile I’d seen – and he’d shown his strength during the orientation session on the wall down in Lobos Nieves. The kind of strength you’d expect from a world class mountaineer.
    And Dan had him. My uncle turned sixty-six in July, but I’d never seen him drop anyone.
    The three of us gradually shifted our center of gravity back toward the boulder, where we landed Tim Foley like an overfed trout.
    “Now that was fun.” He looked up at us, water dripping out of his thinning brown hair. “Let’s do it ag –“
    He rolled across the rock, and threw up into the creek. 
    “Hey, it’s all grist for the mill, Timmy.” Peter Abrams released his hold on my vest. “Put it in your article. But you may want to leave out that last part.”
    “Declan.” Dan broke the end of the daisy chain by releasing Pete’s belt. “Get Tim some dry clothes.”
    My cousin was still up on the log bridge. He seemed to be trying for a straight face . . .
    Never laugh at the clients.
    . . . then gave it up.
    “Now would be good, Declan,” Dan said, which took care of the grin. Declan turned and ambled down the log like it was a Denver sidewalk. I knew he’d flip his dad the bird when Dan wasn’t looking. And I knew Dan wouldn’t acknowledge having seen it. I’d long since removed myself from their ongoing war of attrition. Or at least tried to.
    “You okay, Tim?” Cliff Tate was watching from the high side bank of the creek. “Had a harpoon, I’dve beached you right off.”
    “Cliff.” Julia elbowed him, but not hard. “Be nice.”
    “Hell, Jules.” He grinned. “Now we see Tim’s okay, it was funny. Wasn’t it, Pete?”
    Peter Abrams patted Foley on a wet shoulder, then smiled up at Tate. “Out of all the scenarios that come to mind, I’d rate it my second choice, Cliff.” He put out a hand and popped me to my feet as if I were weightless. “Of course, we’ll be crossing this creek on our way down.”
    I caught Dan’s glance. Those two may butt heads, he’d told me after the orientation session. They’re each rich enough to air-condition hell, and each is used to being the alpha dog. 
    Tate didn’t appear to take offense. “I hit that water, just toss Tim in again. I’ll ride him on down to Lobos.”
    “Yeah, surf’s up.” Foley had begun to rally, crawling to his knees and then his feet. “Pick on the fat kid. I’m used to it.”
    He gave Pete a mock shove, who played along, staggering back. I saw Dan smile faintly.
    It would all go into his internal data bank. He’d already reached some conclusions about our five clients, and he’d add to them between now and the time we began flaking out the ropes.
    “Should you have let him cross?” Dylan Vega was waiting for me at the top of the bluff. She kept her voice low, and it was further muffled by the roar of the creek. Dan and Pete were helping Foley up by an easier route, and didn’t look in our direction.
    “It’s the only way across.” I kept my own voice low, and glanced at the Tates, who’d moved away from the creek. “Unless we sent him with Declan half a mile upstream to the horse ford. I don’t think he likes Declan.”
    “Who does?” Some people might have softened that comment with an I-know-he’s-your-cousin-and-all smile. “Declan’s going to have to catch up with us anyway.”
    “That’s true,” I said, since Dylan was a customer, too. A trustafarian, according to Dan, who’d used the local term for wealthy trustfunders.
    “Moot point, really.” She re-clipped her fanny pack. “He shouldn’t be along in the first place. You saw him on the climbing wall.”
    “He’ll be okay,” I said. “Once he hikes his way into shape.”
    “By day after tomorrow, you mean.” She put back on her mirrored glacier glasses. “I guess that means you’ll be the one reefing him up those off-widths on the second buttress.”
    “Actually . . .” I gave her the company smile. “ . . . I was planning to pair him with you.”
    I turned to cross the log bridge to get Declan in gear, and heard a quick snort of laughter behind me.

#
    My uncle, Daniel Magee, owns and operates Snow Wolf Adventures, one of the Rocky Mountain west’s leaders in the rapidly expanding field of adventure tourism. Our clients are very fit – for the most part – people with money who contract with us to be guided . . .
    Pushed, pulled, baby-sat at time.
    . . . up a peak like the Gravedigger, or some other exotic and challenging locale, where they can pit themselves against nature during the day, then get pampered like in a five-star hotel when they get back to camp. My cousin Declan and I are two of Dan’s employees, which right away tells you some things about my uncle, in both our cases.

#
    We spent half an hour at the log bridge while Tim Foley changed into dry clothes Declan brought across the creek from onboard Sadie the packhorse. Outdoor World hadn’t scrimped on Foley when they sent him on this story, picking up the tab for his gear as well as my uncle’s fee. This included a high-dollar camera – no Smartphone photos for OW – which luckily for Foley wasn’t on his person when he went into the creek.
    “I may have to make a couple stops, cuz.” Declan was giving Sadie a walkaround, tugging on her packsaddle. “Fiona must’ve spiked my oatmeal this morning. Got the runs coming on.”
    He amplified his distress with a half-hearted kick in the direction of a pair of rock squirrels near a large boulder, scarred by decades of initials covering its surface, along the trail.
    Fiona the Brit was Declan’s sort-of girlfriend. When she first showed up in Lobos Nieves, I had a bet with Cody Leach, who guides for another of Dan’s ascent teams, that Fiona had more piercings than tattoos. When I asked her, she invited me to go bugger myself, but told Cody he was welcome to come by that evening and count them. We decided to call it a tie.
    “Better make sure you have plenty of TP, then, hadn’t you?” I held eye-contact, which I knew Declan disliked. I had no doubt he’d make a stop or two before he reconnected with us near the lower basin, nor any faith it would be connected with diarrhea. “We’re going to need you at the lake when we get there –“
    “Hey, if I gotta take a dump –“
    “- with all the gear. They’ll be wanting their rain jackets if weather starts to roll in.”
    He blew out through his nose and favored me with a bit of stinkeye, both of which I remembered from when I was little. When he’d get pissed about something and decide to whale on me if we were alone. Eight years younger, I was an easy target then, and I knew he wasn’t happy about the reversal in our roles now.
    “Whatever,” he said, like a sullen thirteen year old instead of a guy in his mid-thirties, and turned away. Sadie responded immediately to the tug on her bridle rope. The younger packhorse, Wanda, shied briefly, then followed Sadie’s lead. The squirrels ignored her just like they’d ignored Declan.
    “And don’t yank on that rope,” I said to his retreating back. “You know she has a tender mouth.”
    I guess I can’t help it. He’s family, and I suppose I love him. But Dylan Vega was right, too.
    I watched him lead the packhorses along the trail paralleling Big Cemetery Creek, then I re-crossed the log bridge. Partway over, a burst of spray splashed my boots, reminding me of Tim Foley.
    Maybe Dylan was right about that, too. I should’ve sent Foley with Declan to begin with. Or maybe Dan should have. He’s the trail boss, which means he’s in charge until we reach the knife edge. But I knew he didn’t want to embarrass Foley that way. Neither did I.
    But if he couldn’t manage this crossing, what was going to happen when we began the actual climb?

#
    I’d left my frame pack by the base of a big Douglas fir on the high side of the creek. I sat on my heels next to it, back braced against the tree trunk, and watched our clients gather their gear.
    What there was of it. Part of the fat fee provided for Sadie and Wanda, and Declan, the camp swamper and all-purpose go-fer. The clients carried themselves and small back or fanny packs with water and snacks. Even their raingear was on the packhorses, or most of it. Dylan Vega had a rain poncho rolled over one shoulder and beneath the other arm, plus an all-weather anorak tied around her waist. The summer monsoon season was usually played out by early September – the reason Dan steered his high ascent clients to this time of year – but she was evidently taking no chances.
    She was a small woman, maybe five-two or three, with a compact, athletic build. Early thirties, according to the data sheet Dan had on file. Dark hair pulled back under a longbilled cap. Kind of a hard angle to her jawline, but she’d been pleasant so far. Even the brief set-to over Tim Foley had to me the feel of humor . . .
    Maybe a measuring kind of humor.
    . . . more than anger.
    Besides, Julia Tate was smiley enough for all of us. She and her husband were snapping into fanny packs near where Peter Abrams was helping Foley with his gear. He seemed to have adopted the writer, for whatever reason.
    Get him on top, Sionna, Dan had told me when I’d expressed an opinion about Foley similar to Dylan’s. We get him on top with Abrams and Tate, and he takes his story national . . .
    “Everybody ready?” My uncle snapped into his pack, and I rose to do the same. We’d talked about one of us laying back to babysit Foley up the steep section ahead through Keyhole Canyon to the lower basin, and I saw Dan had that covered. So I stepped down onto the trail and looked back at the rest of our group.
    A quick glance at the log bridge, probably not destined to be a highlight in Tim Foley’s forthcoming epic for OW, then over toward the boulder on the other side where Declan’d tethered Sadie and Wanda.
    Something moved over there, down low, next to the base of the boulder. Too big to be the rock squirrels, I decided, and turned up the trail into the canyon. Probably a marmot.