He sidestepped back over to them. “That way’s no good,” he said, staring up the rock that Dee leaned against. Certainly steeper than anything they’d been on thus far, but the handholds and footholds were prominent, and twelve feet above, a wide crack opened.
“I think we can climb this,” he said.
“Are you crazy?”
He reached up, slid his fingers into a crack, and pulled himself up. Jammed his foot into a ledge.
“There’s no way, Jack.”
“This really isn’t bad,” he said, though he could feel the threat of a tremor in his right leg, which at the moment, held all of his weight. He lifted his left foot onto a bulging rock and went for another handhold. Seven feet above the grassy ledge now and the world tilting, an ocean of open air underneath him.
Nothing to do but keep climbing.
The next move brought him to the crack and he squeezed into a space no larger than a coffin.
“Send the kids up,” he said.
“Jack, come on.”
“Just do it, Dee. Cole, can you climb to me, buddy?”
“If they fall—”
“No one’s going to fall. Don’t even put that thought in their head.”
“I can do it, Mom.”
Cole reached up, pulled himself onto the rock. “Spot him, Dee.”
“You have to let him go.”
She cried as she raised her arms, said, “Move out of the way, Na, in case he slips. I don’t want him knocking you off the mountain. Cole, you be so careful, baby.”
The boy moved up the rock as if he had no concept of the price for falling. Jack on his knees in the nook, stretching his right arm down as the boy came within range.
“Cole, grab my hand, and I’ll pull you up.”
Jack got a solid grasp on his wrist, heaved his boy up the rest of the way.
With the cumbersome pack and the shotgun tied to it, the two of them took up every square inch of the recess.
“Dee, you still have the Glock, right?”
“I have to get rid of this pack.”
“Jack, no, it has our tent, our sleeping bags, our—”
“I know, believe me. Last thing I want to do, but I can’t move in this crack with the pack on, and I’ve almost fallen twice because of it getting caught up.”
He unhooked the hip belt.
“Jack, please. Think about this.”
“We have to have a tent.”
He unclipped the chest strap.
“We’ll make do.”
“I don’t know. Look out, both of you.” He slid out of the shoulder straps and slung the pack hard enough to clear the ledge.
It fell uninterrupted for a hundred and fifty feet, then struck rock, then bounced through a series of echoing ricochets for another four hundred feet until it vanished in the upper realm of the boulder field, the delayed sound of its ongoing fall still audible.
“All right, Naomi,” Jack said, “it’s all you.”
She began to climb, either more careful or less sure of herself than Cole.
Halfway to the crack, she froze.
“I’m stuck,” she said.
“You’re not stuck. There’s a great handhold a couple feet up.”
“I can’t hold on much longer. My fingers are—”
“Listen to me, Na. Reach above you and pull yourself up. If you get to that point, I can grab you.”
She looked up at him, tears streaming from the corners of her eyes and so much fear, her entire body trembling, knuckles blanching from the sheer strain of clutching the rock.
“I’m slipping, Daddy.”
“Naomi. Reach up right now or you’re going to fall.”
She lunged for the handhold, and Jack saw her miss it, fingers dancing across smooth rock. He reached so far down he nearly fell out of the nook, catching her wrist as she came off the mountain, her feet dangling over the ledge, one hundred and five pounds slowly tugging Jack’s shoulder out of socket and dragging him off the nook.
“Oh my God, Jack.”
“I’ve got her. Get your feet on the rock, Na.”
“Don’t try. Do it.” She found purchase and Jack pulled with everything he had, walking her up the rock and then over the ledge, all three of them crammed into the nook and Naomi crying hysterically.
“Have a nice life, guys,” Dee said, “because there is no f**king way.”
“Come on, sweetheart. Get up here. It’s cake from here on out.”
“Maybe cake is too strong a word. It’s shortbread. How’s that?”
“I hate you so much.”
But she started to climb.
Moving up the crack proved easier, if only because of the illusion of safety—boxed in on three sides and plenty of handholds. They climbed all morning, blisters forming on Jack’s fingertips, and he kept wondering how close it was to midday, the adrenaline rush having skewed his perception of time. Doubted their morale could withstand another night on this mountain.
Thirty feet above, Cole hollered.
Jack’s heart stopped. He looked up, the sun burning down, couldn’t see a thing through its cutting-torch glare.
He shouted, “Everyone okay?”
Dee yelled back, “We’re at the top.”
Jack stood on the ridge, bracing against the wind and staring east. The mountain fell away beneath them toward pine-covered foothills that downsloped into high desert. Several miles out and one vertical mile below, a highway ran north.
“There it is,” Jack said. “I don’t see any cars on it.”
“Backside of this mountain doesn’t look too awful,” Dee said.
“No, just long as hell.”
Dee lowered herself off the ridge.
“Ready to get off this rock, huh?”
“Like you can’t even imagine.”
They descended the east slope—a steep boulder field streaked with last year’s snow that was hard as asphalt—and evening was coming on by the time they stumbled out of it into the spruce. After two full days on nothing but rock, the moist dirt floor felt like sponge under Jack’s feet. He was too tired and sore to register hunger, but his thirst verged on desperation.
“Should we stop?” Dee asked as they hiked through the darkening woods. “I mean, it’s not like we need to find the perfect spot for our tent or anything. Any old piece of ground will do.”