35

They’d pitched their tents along the shore and eaten in a quiet that was the result of fatigue and a general hopelessness. Now they sat at the fire while the snow began to turn the ground around them white. Willie Raye, who was particularly subdued, had also developed stomach cramps and diarrhea. He confessed that he’d drunk lake water. Cork informed him that he’d probably ingested a parasite, Giardia, sometimes present in the urine of beavers. It caused just such symptoms in humans. Although Cork assured him that however uncomfortable it might be it wasn’t deadly, Raye seemed less and less convinced each time he hobbled into the bushes.

Cork stirred the fire idly with a basswood stick. “We have plenty of food,” he said. “And there are enough old logging roads that we shouldn’t have any trouble finding one and walking out.”

“Without Shiloh?” Louis asked.

The men looked at one another.

“I’m not sure there’s anything more we can do, Louis. Whoever it is, they’ve made sure we couldn’t follow them.” With the glowing end of the basswood, Cork gestured toward the canoes.

Sloane sat hunched toward the fire looking tired and perplexed. “I don’t get it. Why’d they do the canoes but leave us our gear? That seems pretty frigging polite.”

“In a hurry,” Stormy speculated. “Slow ’em up too much to do anything more than slam an ax through the hulls.”

“How much more time would it take to grab our gear and throw it all in the canoe?” Sloane pointed out.

Arkansas Willie Raye, who looked like death, said quietly, “They did what they came for. They grabbed my girl. Now all they want to do is get away.”

Cork wished there were some shred of hope he could offer, but it finally looked like they’d hit a dead end as far as hope was concerned. They’d been too late. In a wilderness the size of the Boundary Waters, the body of a woman could easily be hidden so that it was never found.

Stormy finally stood up. “I’m going to get some more firewood. Give me a hand, Louis?”

With an electric lantern lighting their way, father and son headed down the shoreline toward a stand of mixed hardwoods a short distance away. Cork watched them go and felt the hollow place in his own spirit as he thought about how much he missed his son, Stevie. He wondered what was happening that night in the house on Gooseberry Lane. He envisioned the living room lit with the warm glow of lamps, the smell of Rose’s cooking suffusing every breath, Stevie sprawled on the rug with his trucks or Legos. The girls would be studying, probably. Annie anyway. Jenny-who knew? She was changing so fast he always felt like he was seeing her from a distance as she left him behind. And Jo? She would have everything under control. She always did. It was always hard when he realized how well they managed without him.

Cork swung his attention to Sloane, who sat staring into the fire, his hands tightly clasped. Cork imagined what must be going through his head. He’d lost an agent in his charge, maybe a friend. They hadn’t saved the woman they’d come for. Cork figured Sloane was probably going over it all, revisiting his mistakes, every bad decision, and feeling responsible and regretful. Cork understood. He’d been that route himself, and not that long ago.

“Look!”

Louis came back into the firelight with his father. Between them they held something big and flat and yellow.

“What is it?” Sloane asked.

“Lay it out,” Cork told them.

He stepped to the other side of the fire where Stormy and Louis set the thing on the ground, took the electric lamp, and studied their find carefully.

“It’s an inflatable kayak,” he said. “And check this out.” He stuck his index finger into a couple of slits that ran for several inches along one side. “Clean cuts. Probably with a knife. Where’d you find this?”

“Stuffed in some bushes in the trees,” Louis said. “Hidden, kind of.”

“It’s a one-man kayak,” Cork said.

“A one-man kayak.” Sloane’s eyes narrowed as he thought. “And one set of prints besides Shiloh’s. Maybe we’re down to dealing with one guy out here.”

“Everything points that way,” Cork agreed.

“What do you think? Somehow,” Sloane went on, speculating, “he locates Shiloh, so he doesn’t need Louis anymore. He radios the dude who attacked us this morning and tells him to make sure we don’t interfere.”

“Then what about that?” Stormy pointed to the kayak that had been rendered useless by a knife blade. “Why would he do that, then steal one of our canoes?”

“Maybe he didn’t do it,” Cork said.

Sloane looked at Cork, and life leaped into his eyes. “Shiloh.”

“You lost me,” Arkansas Willie said.

“It’s like this, Willie,” Cork explained. “As far as we can tell, there’s only one man after Shiloh now. Suppose Shiloh was able to get away from him. She puts a couple of slits in the kayak to make sure he can’t follow her. Strands him here.”

“How does she take off?” Sloane considered.

Cork looked to Louis. “Did she have a canoe of her own?”

“Uncle Wendell said she did. I never saw it.”

“There you go.” Cork was walking back and forth in the firelight now, envisioning it all. “Whoever this guy is, he burns the cabin. Who knows why? Spite. Evidence. Anyway, he knows he’s stranded. Then we come along. He hides until we’re on the ridge, then puts an ax through the hulls of those two canoes so we can’t follow him, and he takes off in the other.”

Sloane rubbed his hands together in excitement, but he said cautiously, “It’s an awful lot of speculation.”

“Seems to me we’ve got two choices,” Cork said. “We can give up and say we’re beaten. Or we can decide we’ve still got a fighting chance at finding Shiloh.”

“I’m all for giving it a go,” Sloane told him, “but I’ve gotta point out to you that that guy’s done a good job of punching holes in any rescue effort we might want to mount.” He jerked his head toward the damaged canoes.

“Yeah.” Cork hit his palm with his fist. “Damn. If I’d just brought some duct tape along, I’ll bet I could patch those holes.”

“Maybe Louis could help,” Stormy offered.

The men turned their attention to the boy. He seemed small, and when he looked down, his face was shadowy in the firelight, uncertain.

Stormy knelt and spoke to his son, although his dark eyes never moved to the boy’s face. He seemed to be speaking to the fire. “Louis, I never much believed in the things your Uncle Wendell taught you. I thought being a Shinnob was mostly a hard thing and the best way to handle it was to ignore it as much as possible. Well, I was wrong. What you know, what Uncle Wendell taught you, can help Shiloh. What do you say?”

The boy spoke quietly. “I don’t know if it will work.”

“If what will work?” Arkansas Willie asked.

Stormy said, “My uncle builds canoes. Birch-bark canoes.”

“Ours aren’t birch bark,” Sloane pointed out.

“Maybe they could be patched as if they were. What do you think, Louis?”

From far behind them came the howling of a wolf. They all turned toward the inland dark. The howl came again, from somewhere high along the ridge they could not see, a cry that seemed to be seeking an answer.

Louis turned back to the men. “I’ll try,” he said.

The ground was fully white by the time they drew the canoes up to the fire and Louis sat down to work. Following the boy’s instructions, Cork and Sloane had cut several strips of bark from a number of birch trees in the stand of mixed hardwoods. The canoes were tipped with the hulls to the fire. Louis spread one of the strips across the first of the damaged hulls. The ax blade had been swung twice, making an X near the bow. Louis trimmed the strip with a knife so that it covered the entire area with a couple inches to spare. He’d told them he needed an awl. Uncle Wendell, he said, used a migos, an awl made of deer bone. Cork offered his Case knife, which had a reamer/awl among its many blades. Louis also said he’d need something like thread to sew the birch-bark patch to the hull. Cork never entered the Boundary Waters without a small tackle box and collapsible rod. He dug the small tackle box from his pack and offered Louis nine-pound-test fishing line.

Louis tried to punch the awl through the Kevlar without success. The rend in the hull had weakened the integrity of the material and the whole area simply gave as he pushed. He looked up at the men, wounded with defeat.

Arkansas Willie sat down heavily. “Guess that about corks it.”

Stormy reached toward his son. “Give me the knife, Louis.” He took the knife and nudged the tip of the awl into the coals at the fire’s edge. He put on a glove. After a minute, he pulled the awl from the coals, pressed the red-hot tip gently to the canoe, and melted a deep indentation near the rend.

“Hold this against the inside,” he said and gave his son a flat chunk of wood. Sloane and Cork held the canoe on its side while Louis braced the wood chunk against the Kevlar hull. Stormy gave the awl a whack and punched a clean hole right through the melted indentation. In this way, within half an hour, Stormy and Louis had the damaged area outlined. Cork straightened a fishhook and tied on the fishing line. Stormy pressed the patch to the hull and held it in place. Louis worked from inside the canoe and Raye from the outside, pushing the straightened hook and line through the holes and the bark.

After they’d secured the patch in this fashion, Louis took hold of the cooking pot he’d placed earlier on the fire. The pot contained pieces of pitch-covered spruce bark he and his father had gathered while Cork and Sloane were cutting the birch-bark strips. Louis had made a sack from the mesh inner pocketing of Cork’s down vest, filled the sack with the pieces of spruce bark, and sunk the whole thing in water to boil. The pitch lifted from the spruce bark, filtered through the mesh sack, and rose to the surface of the boiling water where Louis carefully skimmed it off with a spoon. He placed it in another, smaller pot, which he put on the fire as well. While that mixture boiled, he ground some charcoal powder from partly burned cedar chips and added that to the liquid pitch. The powder, he said, would help the resin mixture to firm up after it had been applied.

He told his father he needed a cijokiwsagaagun, a small spatula for spreading the resin mixture over the seams of the birch bark to seal it. Stormy split a birch branch and whittled a small, flat blade. Louis took the liquid resin mixture and, using Stormy’s makeshift spatula, carefully applied it to the edges and awl holes of the birch bark to seal the patch.

When they were done with the first canoe, they all stood back and studied it in the firelight. Willie Raye’s long face seemed to have grown longer with weariness. “Do you really think it’ll work?” he asked.

“I think it’s got a hell of a chance,” Cork replied. “Birch bark is watertight. And Kevlar is basically a resin derivative, so Louis’s pitch blend has a reasonable chance of making a good bond. And if it doesn’t, what have we lost but a little sleep?”

“And we’d have lost that anyway,” Sloane added.

Stormy put his hand on his son’s shoulder. “Louis, you’ve done a good job.”

The boy smiled at his father’s praise, and he looked down, embarrassed by the attention of the other men.

“How about some coffee before we start the next one?” Sloane suggested.

He made the brew and they all took some, including Louis, and they sat around the fire. Cork was tired to the bone and could see it in the faces of the others as well. They’d had a long, hard paddle. Two men had met brutal deaths. And it had come down to this: The life of the woman they’d come for might well depend on a couple of thin strips of birch bark. But Cork felt a quiet pride at that moment, in the company of these men and the boy. For despite the terrible odds against them, they had not backed down.

“If you’re right, Cork,” Sloane said, finally breaking the good quiet that had come with the coffee, “and Shiloh got free, where would she go from here?”

With his index finger, Cork snagged a bit of ash that was floating on the surface of his coffee. “I’ve been thinking about that. Louis could probably back me up, but I’d guess if she knows anything at all, she’s headed for the Deertail River. It would begin to complete the circle back to the place we put into Boundary Waters yesterday. The river heads southeast, ultimately to Lake Superior.”

“Wouldn’t she have passed us on our way here?” Willie Raye asked. “I mean, wouldn’t we have seen her?”

Cork shook his head. “In this weather, with all these islands, we could miss the Queen Mary going by.”

“So,” Sloane went on, “she makes this river, the Deertail, then she’s home free?”

Cork swung his gaze to Louis.

“Animkiikaa,” Louis murmured.

“I don’t know what you said,” Sloane told the boy, “but it don’t sound good.”

“It means ’thunder,’” Louis said.

“On a white man’s map, you’ll see it called Hell’s Playground,” Cork said.

Arkansas Willie asked, “What is it?”

“As bad a stretch of rapids as you’ll find anywhere in the Boundary Waters,” Cork replied. “Class four. Deafening when you’re near it.”

“Wouldn’t she know about Hell’s Playground?” Sloane asked.

“If she’s got a map,” Cork said. “And if she knows how to read it.”

Willie Raye rubbed his hand across his mouth in a nervous way. “If she doesn’t know and she gets herself into them…” He couldn’t finish his question.

Sloane set his cup down. “Maybe we’d better get started on the other canoe.”

They all moved toward the work, all except Arkansas Willie Raye, who doubled over suddenly and hobbled desperately toward the trees.

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