To the west, the anomalous rock formation was gone, and the land dropped off into a woodland.
Lorrie had bad news: "There's no guardrail."
The Explorer slid far enough sideways that it must surely have been off the pavement, on the shoulder. As I tried to power past the Hummer and regain the roadway, we were forced counterclockwise. When we turned far enough, we would plummet backward down whatever slope lay beyond-a terrifying prospect.
Lorrie made a sound half gasp, half whimper, either because a contraction wrenched her or because the thought of a backward plunge into unknown territory didn't appeal quite as much as did a roller-coaster ride.
I let up on the accelerator. This changed the physics equation, and the Explorer shifted clockwise, straightened up.
Too late. The right front end dropped sharply, and I knew we had been pressed to the outer edge of the highway shoulder. With the Hummer pushing relentlessly, the Explorer would roll, tumble side over side into whatever lay below.
Counter to instinct, I pulled the steering wheel hard right, into the drop, which Lorrie must have thought was suicidal, but I hoped to use the Hummer instead of continuing to fight it. We turned ninety degrees as we hung on the brink, away from our attacker, until we were facing down a long snowy slope-neither gentle nor impossibly steep-stippled with pine trees receding into a wintry gloom that the headlights could not dispel.
We started down, and I stood at once on the brake pedal, holding us at the crest of the incline. We could see where we were headed now, but I still didn't want to go there.
The Hummer shifted into reverse, backed away from us, no doubt with the intention of ramming us from behind. At our angle, canted sharply forward, he might be able to tip us end over end into the forest below.
I had no choice. Before he could ram us, I let up on the brake.
"Hold on," I told Lorrie.
The idling engine and gravity pulled us off the crest and down.
To put distance between ourselves and the rifleman, we had nowhere to go but down. Judiciously, I pumped the brakes, trying to keep our descent under control.
The broken chain tore loose from the tire. Other than engine noise and the faint clink of the other chains, the only sound was the shush of parting snow.
This was a section of old-growth forest, the trees so immense, the high branches so densely interlaced into a sheltering canopy, that the accumulated winter snow was only twelve inches deep, less in some places. Likewise, so little sunlight reached the floor of these woods that undergrowth posed no obstruction, and the lowest limbs were far above us.
Trees numbered fewer here than in a younger and more competitive evergreen forest. The enormous spreading elders, greedy for sunlight, had repressed new individuals, which withered as saplings.
Consequently, the pines-and interleaving stands of firs-were more widely separated than they might have been elsewhere. Their
impressive trunks-straight, with fissured bark-reminded me of fluted columns supporting the many-vaulted ceiling of a cathedral, though this cathedral offered no warmth to body or spirit and listed like a sinking ship.
As long as I could control our speed, I would be able to steer between the trees. Eventually we would find a bottom, a valley, or perhaps only a narrow defile. I could then turn north or south and hope to find a forestry-service road that would provide a route out of the wilderness.
We would not make it back up the slope that we were descending. A four-wheel-drive vehicle might cope with the snow and the terrain, but the severe angle of incline would defeat it sooner than later, in part because the high altitude would starve a laboring engine.
Our hope of escape and survival depended entirely on reaching the bottom intact. As long as the Explorer remained drivable, we would have a chance.
Although I had never learned to ski, I had to think like a skier in a slalom event as I piloted the Explorer in a serpentine course, weaving through the maze of trees. I dared not turn as sharply as a skier tucking close to a marker flag, because I would surely roll the SUV. Smooth wide easy turns were the trick, which necessitated quick decisions about each new configuration of obstacles but also required that I comprehend the oncoming forest in dimension, holistic ally in order to be considering the next maneuver even as I executed the current one.
This proved to be markedly more difficult than cooking a custard to precisely the right consistency.
"I see 'em."
"The gap's too narrow!"
"We'll make it."
"Nice move," she said.
"Except I wet my pants."
"Where'd you learn to drive?"
"Old Steve McQueen movies."
I couldn't avoid this controlled plunge by simply turning across the face of the slope, because in places the incline seemed too steep to allow the Explorer to remain upright while navigating laterally. So I took what little comfort I could from the word controlled.
If the vehicle were damaged and we were forced to abandon it, our situation would become almost untenable.
In her condition, Lorrie would not be able to walk miles, not even on more friendly ground. She wasn't wearing boots, either, just athletic shoes.
Our parkas offered considerable protection, but neither of us wore insulated underwear. I had a pair of unlined leather gloves in a coat pocket; she'd brought no gloves at all.
The temperature was at best twenty degrees above zero. When rescuers found us-if they did before spring-we would be frozen as solid as mastodons in polar ice.
"You bet I do."
I arced around the stone formation.
"Swale!" she warned.
She wasn't usually a backseat driver. Maybe this compulsion to direct my driving reflected her time as a ballroom-dance teacher, when she called out the steps of a fox-trot to her students.
The depression-the swale-measured about twenty feet wide, six deep. We traversed it, scraped bottom coming out, and so narrowly avoided a head-on collision with the trunk of a fir tree that the passenger-side mirror was torn off.
As the Explorer bounced across uneven ground, dervish shadows
whirled and swooped from the slashing headlight beams. I found it dangerously easy to mistake some of these phantoms for real figures, and to be distracted by the movement.
"Deer!" Lorrie exclaimed.
Seven white-tailed deer were dead-center in our path, all adults, no fawns at this time of year. The herd leader, an imposing buck with a magnificent rack of antlers, had frozen at our approach, head raised, eyes as bright yellow as the reflective plastic of embedded highway lane dividers.
I figured to swing left, go wide around them, and I spotted a passage through the trees beyond the herd.
As I steered the Explorer in that direction, however, the old buck startled. He blew twin plumes of frosted breath and sprang forward, followed at once by the rest of the herd.
I couldn't turn back to the right sharply enough to avoid them. When I tramped the brakes perhaps too hard, the Explorer dug in, finding some traction in the blanket of dead needles and fallen cones immediately under the snow. We slowed for a moment, then encountered ice. The wheels alternately locked and stuttered as we slid toward the herd.
The deer were beautiful, limber, graceful. They seemed to travel without quite touching hooves to ground, as though they were spirits in a dream.
I desperately hoped to avoid them, not only because the thought of killing them sickened me but also because they weighed hundreds of pounds. Hitting one of them would devastate the Explorer no less than would driving it into a wall.
The encounter unfolded as though the deer moved in different universes from ours, as if we were briefly visible to each other through some window between our realities. Having no substance in each other's realm, the SUV slid through the herd, and the frightened herd bounded past the SUV, and we didn't collide with any of them, although we must have missed more than one by a fraction of an inch.
Although the deer were gone, the wheels remained locked. I could neither steer nor brake.
The descent continued uncontrolled, a glissade over snow that had compacted into a brittle crust of dirty ice. This mantle cracked and popped under us, and our speed increased.
I saw more deadwood in our path. A fallen tree. It had been down so long that all the foliage and most of the smaller branches had moldered away, leaving a four-foot-diameter log that would be mottled with lichen and festooned with fungus during warmer months but that was not ornamented now, nestled into the forest loam.
Lorrie must have seen it, too, but did not cry out, only braced herself.
We struck the log. The impact did the Explorer no good, but didn't rack it up as bad as I expected, either. We were lifted from our seats, tested the safety harnesses, but with less violence than we had experienced when we plowed into the snowdrift on the highway.
The fallen tree had been hollowed out by worms and beetles and decomposition. It was largely a shell, and what wood remained under the bark was rotten.
The collision didn't turn the Explorer to junk, merely slowed it down. Sheets of bark and cambium wrapped the front axle, snared throughout the undercarriage, causing friction, slowing us further.
We began to turn as we descended. The wheel spun through my hands, useless. Then we were proceeding backward, headlights aimed upslope, gliding blindly into the ravine, the very fate that had terrified me when the Hummer had been pushing us toward the brink.
Unfortunately, we didn't slide far enough to build speed again. The left rear bumper clipped a tree. We ricocheted sideways into a flanking tree, and then the back of the Explorer wedged between the two. We were at a full stop.
"Well done," Lorrie said dryly.
She nodded. "Thank God."
I switched off the headlights. The trail we had left would be easy to follow, but I saw no point in helping our mysterious assailant find us sooner.
Here under the canopy of evergreens, the darkness pooled deep. Although we had descended perhaps four hundred yards, it seemed that
we must be thousands of fathoms from the highway and even farther from any hope of surfacing to the sight of the sky again.
Although I couldn't smell gasoline and had to conclude that neither the tank nor the fuel lines had sustained damage, and though keeping the car as warm as possible had to be a priority, I switched off the engine. Without our headlights to guide him, the gunman might have tried to track us by the engine noise.
I wanted him to be forced to use a light of his own and thereby reveal his position as he descended.
He would have to come on foot. If he drove down, even the Hummer wouldn't reliably climb back up such a slope, not in the thinner air of this altitude. He wouldn't risk it.
I said, "Lock the doors after me."
"Where you going?"
"No. Let's run."
She looked stricken. "This blows."
My reassuring smile must have been ghastly. "Gotta go."
"More than mung-bean custard," I said.
As I climbed out, the ceiling light was a minor betrayal, quickly extinguished when I closed the driver's door as quietly as possible..
Lorrie reached to the console and pressed the master-lock button among the power controls.
I took a moment to assure myself that the trees blocked the Explorer from further descent. Neither rear door could be opened. The SUV would not slip loose and roll backward.
The darkness seemed to be more than just an absence of light, seemed to have a texture, as though billions of sooty spoors were sifting out of the trees. The humidity, the cold, and most of all my fear conspired to invest this particular darkness with a special substance.
Holding my breath, I listened but heard only the clicks and creaks of the Explorer cooling in the bitter air and the solemn wind lamenting in the highest reaches of the trees. Nothing that suggested an approaching enemy.
The rifleman might still be standing far above us, on the shoulder of Hawksbill Road, mulling over his next move. I suspected, however, that he was a guy who acted quickly and wouldn't spend much time brooding about alternatives.
I didn't waste time wondering who he was, rummaging my mind for explanations. If he killed me, I'd never know. If I got the better of him, I'd have answers. In either case, speculation was fruitless.
Leaving Lorrie alone in the locked car felt like abandonment, although without leaving her, I could not hope to save her and our baby.
Gradually my eyes became dark-adapted, but I couldn't wait for full night vision.
I eased around the trunk of one of the trees between which we had become lodged, and moved to the back of the Explorer.
The forest floor laid clever traps. A crust of hardened snow gave me less trouble than the detritus scattered across it: masses of slippery dead fir needles and cones that rolled treacherously underfoot.
From the rifleman's perspective at the top of the incline, the landscape down here had no profile; the dynamic forest congealed into a black murk. I knew he could not see me as I moved south across the slope, but I nonetheless vividly imagined the crosshairs of a sniper scope scoring my face as he lined up a head shot.
The snow cover wasn't uniform in these sheltered depths, two or three inches in some places, a foot in others, with numerous patches of bare ground. As my night vision improved, I saw the rising land as a crazy quilt of vaguely luminous white swatches stitched in a random pattern with scraps of dark fabric.
I quickly learned how to move more stealthily, but the nature of the terrain made silent progress impossible.
Every few steps, I stopped and listened for any indication that our attacker might be descending. I heard nothing other than the soughing of wind in the highest needled boughs and a menacing-almost subliminal-low droning that seemed to arise from the earth itself but that must have been an echo of the wind.
When I had gone about forty feet, I turned east and began to climb parallel to the tracks we had left in our plunge. I stayed low to the ground, grabbing at rock formations, exposed roots, and other handholds to steady myself, ascending in monkey fashion though not with monkey agility.
I hoped to get half or two thirds of the way up the slope before spotting the rifleman on the way down. Then I could lie low, wait for him to pass, move north across the slope, and attempt to creep up behind him.
This plan was fully insane. I wasn't James Bond. Or even Maxwell Smart. As a man of action, I preferred kneading dough to knocking heads, mixers to submachine guns.