Cargo Excerpts

 

1

 

A man’s shout in the distance broke the stillness of the mountains. It echoed over the cordillera and faded into the silence of the Andes.

Dyana woke. She nestled deeper into her mummy bag, wanting the call to be only a dream.

For long minutes she listened. But all she heard past the rhythm of her father’s breathing as he slept next to her was a breeze rushing toward them over the mountainside, stroking the nylon of their tent, and passing.

She opened her eyes.

Near her face, the thin wall of the tent glowed dully with starlight. The storm clouds must have passed.

Instinctively, one of her hands escaped her bag into the cold to find her knife.

There.

The feel of her knife’s hard shell soothed her. If her claustrophobia took root she could bare the blade and slice her way out if she had to. She let her fingertips rest on the knife handle while warmth vanished from her hand and wrist.

The call she thought she’d heard dimmed into a dreamy memory.

She rolled over to ease the hip ache on her left side.

And then the voice called again.

No mistaking it this time.

He was calling for help.

Dyana elbowed her father through their sleeping bags.

“Dad. Dad, wake up.” Dyana unzipped her bag and cold stole in through her layers to grip her. She felt for her headlamp and found it in the corner of the tent.

“Wake up, Dad.” She switched on the headlamp and the close orange walls of the tent glowed to life. Their bags puffed around them, no room in here for anything but the two of them, the barest essentials of their gear, and the rank odor of two bodies in need of baths.

She reached for the tent’s zipper. Now that the tightness of the space was visible, it closed down on her in a claustrophobic squeeze. She had to get out quickly no matter how cold it was outside.

She nudged her father’s shoulder. “Dad. Dad. Get your headlamp. There’s somebody out there.”

Dyana’s father frowned, his eyes still closed. Ten days of beard framed his jaw with gray and black.

Dyana stuffed her legs into her insulated pants and wrestled into her parka. The sleeves were stiff. It was like wrapping herself in pads of ice.

Winter was coming on quickly.

“Come on, Dad.” She crawled outside. All the freedom of the outdoors flooded her. It was always this way when she emerged from a tent, the narrow space at her back suddenly losing its hold.

The voice up the slope called for help in Spanish. Dyana had her boots on now, the beam of her headlamp vanishing into the darkness when she directed it uphill toward the voice.

Her dad was gearing up. “Where are you going, Dy?”

“There’s somebody out here calling for help.”

“Calling for help?”

“Yeah. I’m going to see what’s up.”

“Wait. Wait for me.”

Of course. Always wanting to protect her. Never mind that she’d been on dozens of climbs without him—far more than he’d completed by the time he was twenty-five. But fine. Let him think he could still protect her.

She peered after the beam of her headlamp. Boulders washed ashen when her light passed over them. Brush clung low to the hillside. No trees at this altitude. A few hundred meters higher up the slope, where her headlamp’s beam couldn’t reach, the snowline glowed, following the grooves of the land in a jagged line of paleness illuminated by starlight.

She put her hands next to her mouth and shouted, “Hello!”

The voice called back, “¡Ayúdeme!”—Help me!

“Dad, it’s coming from up the wash.”

“Just a minute.” He scooted to the edge of the tent and shoved his feet into his boots. The intricate weaving of his laces could have been the knitting of a sweater for all the precision he applied to it.

Finally he held a hand up to her. She took it and leaned away from him to help him to his feet. He arched his back and groaned.

“This way,” she said.

“Hold on, hold on.” He switched on his headlamp and looked in the direction she pointed. He called and listened for the response. It came. “All right, follow me.”

He set out. Dyana tagged along, and behind him again, like so many times when she was a little girl, she began to feel small. It wasn’t his size that brought on this feeling inside her. Not his age or experience or strength. It was just a reflex from seeing him up ahead, leading her.

She slipped around him. He still wanted to be the stronger hiker—she could sense it every time he labored to keep up with her pace—but she’d surpassed him years ago.

As she climbed ahead, the thin air picked at the exposed flesh around her eyes and mouth with a frigid bite. Every breath drew dryness and cold through her windpipe. After the days of trekking to get here, her quads ached, tight from sleep. They would loosen up soon enough.

She called and listened. The voice returned her call, leading her to the right. She heard her father stumble on the stones cast into the wash by centuries of floods and snowmelt, and glanced behind to make sure he was still upright.

Now that she’d drawn closer, Dyana couldn’t quite make out the words coming from above them. The man’s voice seemed to be losing its strength. Without a moon, the starlight’s glow beyond her headlamp lit the swells and dips of the land into shades of gray. She stopped, turned her head to sweep the lamp as far as it would reach over the landscape.

Her father’s bootfalls crunched, catching up. “Do you see him?”

“Not yet.” Dyana cupped her hands around her mouth and called, “¿Dónde está usted?”—Where are you?

¡Aquí!” the voice croaked, farther up the wash.

She knew her father wanted to nudge past her, but it would only slow the search. She took off, gliding up the slope toward the voice, picking out footfalls around the rocks and boulders that littered the terrain.

Movement ahead. A hunched figure, a flash of red in a sea of gray and black. She veered toward it.

The man lay on his back, spread across boulders as if he’d fallen from the sky. The beam of Dyana’s headlamp swung across the man’s face—or what should have been a face.

The black on his nose reminded her of a dog’s snout. Across his cheeks was a band of raw, swollen flesh, red and white and black. The lips he tried to open were frostbitten worst. Blotched with blisters, they looked leprous.

She unclipped her water bottle and held it to his lips. His hands trembled around it, frayed ends of his gloves worn through so his fingertips poked out, blacker than the fabric. He grasped the bottle like an infant going for formula, desperate. Dyana tipped the bottle and the man took three gulps, four, and paused to breathe. He rested his head back against a stone and his eyes rotated—white and blue shining out of a sea of frostbitten flesh like living things among the dead—looking back up the mountain. They darted from side to side, wild eyes.

Ellos…”—They…

Dyana scanned the hillside with her headlamp in the direction the man looked. Nobody up there. The only life on the empty slope was the few shrubs straining for survival at this altitude.

“Who?”

Those eyes swiveled back to her. “…mepersiguen…”—They’re following me.

Who could be chasing him up here? There was no movement anywhere around them. The mountain range was a lifeless, jagged wall of ice and snow, the peaks a mile or more higher than their campsite.

She held the bottle close to him again, and the man went for it.

Dyana turned to her father. “We have to get him to the tent.”

He leaned down to the man. “¿Puede usted caminar?”—Can you walk?

He nodded. His boots scrabbled on the scree as he tried to get his feet under him, the rock fragments shifting like sand.

They helped him up. He hopped on his right foot.

Dyana directed her headlamp at the man’s legs. The left was wrapped in a pad stained red and black, cinched tight with a climbing rope hacked short.

“Keep the weight off this left leg,” she told her father.

The man tried to speak. Dyana drew closer to him, fighting an urge to keep her distance as if frostbite was contagious. “What?”

The man croaked, “Llévenme. ¡Órale!”—Take me. Hurry! He looked over his shoulder. “Me persiguen.

Up the hillside, beyond the reach of the beam of her headlamp, Dyana and her father both looked again. Beyond the empty folds of land nearby, all she saw in the distance were the peaks of the Andes rising like serrated teeth in a pallid underbite at the stars.

“I don’t see anyone.”

The man hopped on his right foot, trying to pull Dyana and her father along. “¡Órale!

They tilted their heads down to shine their headlamps at the rocks at their feet, and set out.

By the time they reached the tent, they had the man in a cradle carry, the wounded leg pointed ahead because of the crude splint covering it. They eased him to the ground and Dyana crawled in the tent to drag him inside. She unzipped her mummy bag and began slipping it around the frozen climber.

“I’ll see if I can find something to burn,” her father said. “Get him warmed up.”

“We should just keep him in the tent, Dad. At least until sunrise.” Dyana zipped the mummy bag around him, then opened her father’s bag and blanketed him with that one. She backed out of the tent.

The man appeared to drift into sleep.

Her father drew her away. “It’ll take me at least a day, maybe two to get down to Tupungato. Another day for medical help to get up here.”

Dyana turned off her headlamp and lifted her face to the stars. The pre-dawn cold seeped into every gap in her parka. It was going to be a long, hard walk. “We could use the bags and our hiking poles. Improvise a stretcher.”

“Not exactly the kind of vacation we had in mind, is it?”

“I’ll get some water boiling. You probably want tea, right?”

“In the worst way.”

She moved off toward the kitchen area of their campsite. The Jetboil was perched on a rock. A few clicks of the igniter got it going, and its homey hiss broke the silence.

Dyana checked her watch. They wouldn’t have the sun’s warmth for another four hours. She looked over her shoulder at her father.

He sat hugging himself, his face uplifted, staring at the sky. He’d left his headlamp on as if it might reach a distant planet. From Dyana’s angle, the rigid crest of his nose was set against the distant range like a nearer peak.

Steam rose from the hole in the Jetboil’s lid. She reduced the heat, poured the boiling water into the mugs, and went to him.

“Dad.” She held out the steaming mug. He looked at her, smiled, and reached for the cup. She settled onto the ground next to him. The misshapen fangs of the cordillera stood against the cloudy drape of starlight. “Which peak do you think he came from?”

He looked toward the stillness of the mountain range. “Could have been any of them. Judging by his condition, he might have tried El Plomo.”

She picked it out of the line of the range. It loomed taller than its cousins even though it was more distant from the campsite. “All these storms…” she said

“Would’ve been miserable.”

She watched the peak as if anyone up there might be visible from this distance, and in the dark too. “He couldn’t have tried it solo.”

He took a sip of tea.

“Did you notice his boots?” she asked. The tea’s warmth only filled her chest briefly.

“What about them?”

“Looked like they didn’t have more than twenty or thirty miles on them, tops.”

“That is strange.”

“And what he was saying, about someone after him…”

Her father gulped at the air between sips at his tea. “Probably hallucinating. Dehydration, hypothermia. And that leg. We’re going to have to take a look at it before we set out.”

He might have been right. The climber could have been hallucinating. Dyana didn’t speak.

“You think someone’s really after him?” he said.

“I know it’s crazy.” She shook her head. “But I keep looking up there.”

Her father refused to even glance in that direction. “Boogeymen.”

She snickered. “Yeti.”

“A long way from the Himalayas.”

“Could be a yeti on vacation.”

“It’s tough for yetis to travel these days. Racial profiling and all.” He drained his cup.

She lifted her cup in a toast. “From a trekking trip to a rescue mission.”

“It was getting too late in the season anyway. We’d have to gear up for the snow.” They clicked their cups together. Dyana drank, but her father held his cup empty upside down. “I’ll be needing more tea,” he said.

She sipped hers loudly. “I’ll get right on that.”

It brought a grin to his face.

Gravel shifted to Dyana’s right.

The silhouette of a man appeared ten feet off, a blackened cutout.

Dyana put her hand on the ground, preparing to stand, before a voice came from another man behind them. “Hola.”

 

 

2

 

Dyana faced the voice. The way these guys crept up made her wish she’d strapped on her knife. Her ice axe was out of reach too.

Hola,” her father said.

The speaker’s hands appeared empty, but in the darkness and with the heavy gloves, she couldn’t be sure.

¿No durmieron?”—No sleep? It was a voice straining to sound harmless.

No hay paz para el malvado,” her father said. No peace for the wicked.

Something like a laugh sizzled out of the nostrils of the speaker.

The other man stepped closer to her. He was her height, but he might have outweighed her twice over. She caught a whiff of him—a scent that somehow made her think of the carcasses of skunks rotting at a roadside. He took another step. She felt his eyes on her like intruding hands.

¿Quieren té?” She got to her feet. The hostess looking to make tea for unexpected guests.

Her father stood too. They angled their backs against one another. She hoped he had his knife handy.

“No, thank you.” The speaker stepped between Dyana and the kitchen. “You are Americans? American tourists?”

“That’s right,” her father said. “And you’re not Argentinos.”

“No…” The speaker’s arms bent, fingers probing the edges of his parka for pockets, and sliding inside.

The other one—the one angling for a better look at Dyana—spoke for the first time. “Have you seen our friend? He is injured. We are coming to help him.”

“Somebody came through about an hour ago,” her father said. “That’s what woke us up. We decided to get an early start instead of going back to sleep.”

“No, it was more like thirty minutes,” Dyana said. At the sound of her voice, a breath oozed out of the nostrils of the one closest to Dyana. She vowed to never leave the tent without her knife again. She glanced at her pack. In the starlight near the stove, her ice axe was a crooked arm angled off her pack’s side.

“Somewhere between thirty minutes and an hour ago, I guess,” her father said. “He made a lot of noise.”

“What kind of noise?” The first speaker again. Hands still in the pockets of his parka.

“Stumbling, moaning. I tried to stop him, but he kept on.” He looked downhill, as if the climber might appear on the trail in the distance.

Their visitors stared at them. The first one said, “He just kept going, eh? Didn’t stop for help, water—nothing?”

“Just kept on. Like a zombie.”

The two men looked at one another. “Zombie?” the first one said.

Dyana chimed in. “Like a dead guy walking.”

“Oh, a dead guy walking. Yes.” The first one shifted his feet. “He had a very hard climb. We think maybe his companions perished. We are from his base camp. Over there.” He nodded toward the west and the cordillera. In the motion of his head, the pinched whites of his eyes caught the starlight, irises like holes stabbed in the center of them. “I wish you could have stopped him.”

Dyana and her father had hiked in that direction the previous afternoon. There was no base camp or any other kind of camp for at least five miles.

“Maybe I should see in your tent,” the other one said. “Maybe he crawled in when you were not looking.”

Dyana laughed. “Yeah. That’s likely.”

“This is not something funny,” the second one said. The set of his feet made him look ready to hit her.

She pushed past the first one, toward the stove. “Have some tea with us. It’ll help you think clearer.” She squatted down, next to where the Jetboil was perched in the dirt. The gas hissed, and on the second click of the starter blue flame blossomed underneath. It lit the dirt and rocks around it.

The second one wandered toward her. Near the stove, her ice axe was only an arm’s length away. She would have to watch for an opportunity to go for it.

Her father said, “You want us to help you look for him? He probably didn’t get very far.” He looked off downhill again. The one standing next to him followed his eyes.

She reached the ice axe. The cold metal in her palm comforted her. She twirled it and struck into the earth, twice, absently chipping at the ground with the sharp edge as if it was what she did whenever she waited for water to boil.

In the periphery of her vision, the one near her watched the ice axe carefully. She sliced the pick end into the dirt, the muffled shovel sound distinct from the crisp chink it made in ice. Her fiancé Nick had bought it for her for Christmas two years ago, their last Christmas together. He couldn’t have imagined she might someday need it to defend herself.

The other one said, “We have searched for him many kilometers. We will rest here a moment.” His hands still stuffed in the pockets of his parka, he followed his partner into the stove’s blue glow. Her father joined them, three standing around where Dyana crouched, all of them staring at the flickering gas flame as if it could warm anything besides the cylinder directly above it.

“You are climbers also, I see,” the first one said, nodding to Dyana’s ice axe.

She tracked them out of the corners of her eyes.

“Just doing some exploring,” her father said.

“But you are…andinistas?”

“Mountaineers, yes.”

“Mountaineers. Have you climbed here, the Portillos?”

“Some. Yes.”

“Our friends encountered some difficulties, we believe. We are anxious to learn what happened to them.”

Dyana set their cups next to the stove. “We’ll have to share our cups. That okay with you guys?”

“Certainly,” the other one said. “What are your names?”

“I’m Dyana. This is Will.”

A hand finally came out of the parka’s pocket and reached over to her father to shake. “My name is Cesar.”

Her father shook Cesar’s hand. The other one kept his hands to himself. “Pablo,” was all he said. His eyes never left Dyana.

“There is a mountaineer named Will Mackie,” said Cesar. “You would not be him?”

“I would be.”

Dyana switched off the Jetboil and began pouring, steam vanishing into the frigid air as soon as it appeared.

“I am honored to meet a famous man.” Cesar said it as if the honor was not his at all. “Let me see what I can recall. You have done the Eiger?”

“Dyana’s been over there recently. I’m too old for that murderer.”

Pablo spoke up. “You’re his daughter.”

Dyana handed him a cup of tea. “Yep.”

“It is said one day you will surpass the accomplishments of your father,” Cesar said.

“That right?”

“They call you la araña, no?”

The spider. For the way she moved up walls where others couldn’t. “I’ve heard that.” Dyana handed Will’s cup to Cesar.

He sipped at the tea. Despite the darkness, Dyana could see Cesar’s face wince. “We make ours a different way.” He handed the cup to her father.

Will tossed the contents of the cup aside.

Pablo made the same move.

Dyana rose, the ice axe firmly in her palm. The curved handle and the head of the adze opposite the sharp point of the pick gave it a sinister avian look.

“You say he went down the trail? That way?” Cesar tilted his head in the direction her father had indicated.

“Yeah. Best we could tell. But the way he was moving, he might have wandered off anyplace. I wish we could’ve stopped him.”

“I do also.” Pablo stepped next to his companion. He spoke low to him. Dyana couldn’t make it out, but she was sure the accent wasn’t Argentine.

Cesar’s hands returned to his pocket. Dyana tensed.

“We must go after him.”

They stared at Dyana and her father.

“Possibly we come back, if we do not find him.”

Starlight glinted off the blade of the ice axe dangling from Dyana’s hand. “I’ll keep the water warm,” she said.

Cesar turned and started down the trail. No lamp, just navigating by the starry glow from the sky.

Pablo stared at Dyana a moment longer.

She twirled the ice axe in her palm, the blade flipping around once.

A soft hint of a snicker came from Pablo before he followed his companion. After a minute, their movements were lost in the grades and folds of the land.

Dyana’s father breathed deeply and worked his shoulders around, twisted his neck and looked up at the stars. Dyana had seen him release tension this way a million times. He rubbed the rim of the cup with his glove, as if that might somehow obliterate Cesar’s germs, and lifted the Jetboil pot. Steam clouded upward as he poured. Both vessels quaked in his hands. She didn’t blame him. Her own fear still dried her mouth.

“I knew I’d get you to make more tea somehow,” he said.

“Yeah. That worked out pretty well for you.” Dyana set the ice axe at an angle against her pack. “I don’t think we should wait for daylight.”

The rim of her father’s cup trembled against his lower lip. “We’ll leave the tent. Make it look like we’re just off for a day hike.”

“We can use the bivy sacks if we need to rest.” Dyana emptied the Jetboil and wiped it out. She didn’t turn on her headlamp until she had the stove stored in her pack, when she needed light to lash the hiking poles together in pairs. By the time her father finished his tea, Dyana was ready.

They unzipped the bottom zipper of one of the sleeping bags to slide the poles in one end and out the top to make the stretcher.

Dyana crawled into the tent. The climber still slept. She touched his shoulder, and he let out a moan. His head rolled. A grimace began to form and stopped abruptly. The pain from moving the frozen flesh of his face must have been excruciating. Exposing it again to the wind after the relative warmth of the tent could be disastrous.

“Let’s get him in one of those bivy sacks,” she said.

Her father set up his sack quickly, and they slid the climber inside with a pad underneath. Once they lifted him onto the improvised stretcher, they stood back.

Dyana said, “Maybe we should give him something warm to drink first.”

“Let him sleep. Best thing we can do is get him down to Tupungato.”

“And away from his amigos Cesar and Pablo.”

She hefted her pack. Without the tent and sleeping bag, it wasn’t nearly as cumbersome. Straps tightened, she returned to where the climber lay cocooned in the bivy sack. She slipped her map out of her shirt pocket and located their campground at the foot of the moraine.

Dyana’s father stomped over to her with his pack on, stretching for the straps above his shoulders. She pointed to the map her headlamp illuminated. “I’m thinking we bushwhack southeast, pick up this trail here.”

The topographic map showed a downhill grade following a draw that became a stream in a few miles with a trail running alongside. She opened another fold of the map to show more of the route. It would be steep downhill all the way, and it would take them miles away from the closest settlement, but a series of 13,000 to 16,000 foot peaks stood between them and the nearest vineyard. Following the grade was the only logical route to get them to the town of Tupungato.

Her father said, “What we need is a burro or two.”

Dyana turned off her headlamp. “Right. Sebastián. Good idea.”

They had passed Sebastián’s shack two days ago, on the way in. A pair of goats had wandered in and out of the mud-brick shelter while Dyana and her father talked with him, and two burros had stood tied to a post out back next to his woodpile. It was less than four hours’ walk, and it would save them having to cart the climber all the way back to town.

Her father turned his back to the head of the bivy sack and crouched down, signaling to Dyana that he’d take the lead. He felt along the ground behind him for the ends of the hiking poles that would be the stretcher handles, and found them. He said, “Ready?”

Dyana said, “Set, lift.”

Her quads cramped as she brought herself upright against the weight of her pack and her half of the stretcher.

Her father said, “How’s it look?”

“You’ll know if he slides off.”

“We could rope him to the stretcher.”

“Let’s get out of here.”

 

Cargo will be available for purchase in mid-January, 2014, here.
 

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