Now, with a beautiful renegade environmentalist by his side, Antonio embarks on a perilous journey through the jagged peaks--where he will come face-to-face with a woman’s secrets, a man’s evil, and an amazing undiscovered treasure deep within
a hidden labyrinth of caves.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Watch me. Keep it tight."
My father's calm voice belies his precarious position. He clings to the vertical granite forty feet above where I sway in my harness, another one hundred and fifty feet above the canyon floor. Although my vision is slightly blurred by the waves of early-morning heat the sun is generating off the cliffs face, I can see where his right hand grips a tiny edge barely thicker than a pencil. His left hand sorts through the rack of protective gear slung around one burly shoulder. The toes of the old man's climbing slippers are splayed on nubbins of quartz that look as if they could pop off the sandstone wall at any moment. But there's no quiver in his muscles, no panic in his voice. I glance at the last piece of protection my father had clipped to the rope twenty feet beneath him and feel a familiar admiration swelling in my chest.
"You say you want slack?" I shout up, pretending to have misunderstood. My hands shuffle over the belay device--a slotted piece of cold-forged steel appropriately called an Air Traffic Controller--and take in the few inches of loose rope between us.
My father drops down a hard look before he returns to the task of finding a cam to fit in the narrow crack above his head. From that look I guess he isn't in a humorous mood. My mother had warned me about this: in recent months his tolerance for frivolity has suffered a dramatic decline. Resolving to remain silent and simply focus on my job, I study the forty feet of vertical space between us.
The rock is a combination of sandstone, gneiss, and pinkish pegmatite. Its texture is sometimes smooth and sometimes coarse under my fingertips. The entire five-hundred-foot canyon wall overhangs slightly from where it's been carved out of ancient bedrock by thousands of years of rushing water and tumbling boulders. The distance between my father and me appears almost featureless but for where a single recess mars the wall--a short and flaring horizontal fissure, the only opportunity for him to have placed some gear to protect against a fall. Above his head begins the comfort of the deep vertical crack into which he's working the spring-loaded camming device.
According to my father's tattered guidebook that describes the route, called "Big Balls and a Puckered Ass" (the route's name could just as easily describe my father), and which credits him with the route's first ascent, this second pitch is the toughest of the four rope-lengths up the cliff. I had led the easier first one hundred and fifty feet or so and had expected that this crux pitch would be mine as well. Dad hasn't been climbing much lately and the years have to be taking their toll. But the old man insisted on keeping the crux for himself, taking what is known as the "sharp end" of the rope from me rather than being safely belayed from above, where a fall could be measured in inches rather than feet or broken limbs.
Dad has something to prove today, I realize. It is the last time he'll be able to climb here at the scene of his glory days thirty years ago. And this is the hardest single pitch of the numerous routes he'd pioneered on the isolated canyon's walls, when climbs of this level were only rarely attempted and the land around the canyon and the entire Wild Fire Valley region was believed to be forever in the public trust. It must pain him to know that in just weeks this land--his land--will become private property and climbing will be forbidden.
The narrow gorge is sacred to me, too, because of a sort of mythology I'd invented about the place when I was a child. Although my brother and I had never been to the canyon, we grew up listening to stories told by our parents' friends about Dad's long-ago exploits here. For me in my childhood this was Mount Olympus, where the gods frolicked in ancient times.
For a moment I try to imagine my father in the old days, before my birth and before the war that turned him into a career soldier. I can see him laughing and joking with equally loose-jointed and tight-muscled young partners, clad in felt-soled boots while trusting their lives to primitive gear, made delirious by the heights and the virgin risks they faced. At night they camped around bonfires up in the broader valley where the canyon walls begin their deep cut through the red and gold sandstone. There they drank cheap wine from jugs and relived each day's thrills in a sort of Olympian bacchanal. They would wake in the morning, groggy and heavy-headed in the damp meadow grass, but ready to lay it all on the line once again. If the stories were true, Dad must have been a far more effusive man back then. The tales his friends told my brother and me made him sound wild-ass crazy and larger-than-life, not at all like the somber, cautious man above me now.
Refocusing on the present and the expanse of steep rock between us, I can see that there's good reason for caution. If he slips, he'll be looking at more than a forty-foot fall before the rope locked in my belay device can catch him. And that's only if the one lousy piece of protection he'd placed twenty feet beneath his heels doesn't fail. If it blows, then the rope will catch on the anchor I hang from. An eighty-foot fall for Dad. A serious whipper for any man; one that few could walk away from unscathed. I take a quick look at the boulder-strewn ground well over a hundred feet below me and reassure myself that at least he won't deck out. As long as the rope and my anchor hold, he might shatter his bones on the cliff's face but he won't hit the ground. Then I look at the three pieces of gear that compose the anchor in front of me, suspending me from the wall, and wish I'd done a better job of positioning them.
My father gingerly slots the mechanical cam in the crack over his head. A good fit. He finally calls for slack in that same terse, unconcerned voice. I give him a few feet so that he can clip the rope to the cam's nylon runner. My lungs release an unconsciously retained breath as the carabiner's gate snaps shut.
"Want to rest?" I yell up, unable to restrain myself.
He doesn't even bother to give me a look this time. My question had been meant as another joke, but as far as I can tell he never even smiles. Either he climbs or he falls--Dad never hangs on a rope. But he does spit out a brown glob of tobacco juice that I watch float down toward me then past, barely missing my arm. After a few seconds I hear its soft smack on the boulders below. Above me he resumes his deliberate crawl into the sky.
I start to shift in my harness, trying to ease where the nylon straps are cutting into my crotch. But after a quick glance at the sketchy anchor, I resolve to stop squirming and simply endure it. If the anchor fails, I will plummet, pulling Dad off with me. It isn't the danger that concerns me, as in all likelihood the cam he's just placed will hold us both on our separate ends of the rope, but the shame that will result. Above me my father continues upward with apparent ease although I know his forearms and calves must be burning, his shoulders pumped with lactic acid. Christ. Closing in on sixty and the old man's still an animal.
By the time he pulls over a small roof and disappears from sight, I'm beginning to wonder if I'll ever be able to have children of my own. My harness's crotch loop feels as if it's attempting to sterilize me with a cutting pressure. With great relief I hear his deep voice call out, "Off belay!" There are two sharp tugs on the rope.
"Nice work, Colonel," I shout up into the sky. "You've still got it!"
I feel another two tugs on the rope, signaling that he's anchored and it's my turn to be belayed. I disassemble the anchor, wipe my sweaty hands on my shorts, dip them in the pouch of chalk that hangs just below my butt, and ease onto the hot rock.
After pulling over the short, difficult roof, I find my father comfortably belaying me from a wide ledge. He sits with his back propped by the sandstone wall and his legs spread before him. He's removed his shoes; his bare feet and ankles protrude off the edge and into space. His eyes are half-closed against the sunlight. I step to the anchor he's built out of two hexes stuffed deep in a constricting crack and clip a bight of rope to the carabiners connecting them. I shake the anchor a little and try to make another joke.
"Jesus, Dad, whatever happened to not trusting just two pieces? Remember the way you used to yell at 'Berto and me for that?"
His eyes remain half-closed but I can sense a sudden heat in them. Even his bald, sun-freckled scalp turns a little pink at the mention of my brother's name. For a moment I want to stuff a stinking climbing slipper in my mouth, thinking I've spoken the name too soon. But then I remind myself that Roberto is the reason we're here. The primary reason, anyway. This trip is supposed to be an intervention with Roberto, my drug-addicted brother, as well as a holiday in which our father can relive his glory days and say goodbye to a remote piece of Colorado that's soon slated to become a part of a massive ski resort. Roberto will arrive this afternoon or maybe the next day, and it's time for Dad and me to get some things out in the open.
So I slump down next to my father. I offer him the bottle of warm water that I've carried dangling from my harness. He speaks first, and I suppose he's trying to head me off from the direction he must know I'm traveling.
He asks without looking at me, "So, how are you liking this cop stuff?"
His tone sounds vaguely condescending, as it does every time I see him and he asks this same question. He has to know the response this will provoke from me.
And I can't resist falling into the trap. "I'm not really a cop, Dad. I'm an agent," I explain as I always do. I try to keep the annoyance and defensiveness out of my voice. "I don't wear a uniform, I don't write speeding tickets, and I don't eat donuts. I investigate drug crimes--mostly meth--and that's it. Anyway, I like it. I run my own ops and I make my own hours."
This last part is something I add in a juvenile attempt to make my father appreciate my job. His dead-ending career is as an Air Force officer in command of an elite Special Forces unit known as the Pararescue Corps, or PJs. Being harnessed to a rigid chain of command, he never runs his own ops or makes his own hours. And he seldom takes a leave that isn't interrupted. We've had this discussion a hundred times.
With a self-deprecating smile, I add, "And I get to take vacations like this whenever I manage to get myself suspended."
That almost makes Dad chuckle. I can see the lines around his mouth deepen for just an instant. I've been suspended twice in my three years as a special narcotics agent for Wyoming's Division of Criminal Investigations, a part of the state Attorney General's Office. The first time had been the result of an officer-involved shooting. Anytime a law enforcement officer is forced by circumstances to pull a trigger, especially if he or she manages to put a bullet in someone, there is a mandatory period of suspension during which the shooting is investigated by the office's version of Internal Affairs and ruled either justifiable or not. These bureaucratic inquiries take a long, long time. During the investigation the officer is supposed to seek counseling in order to alleviate the guilt and grief of having shot some scumbag who'd been trying to kill him. I hadn't felt the need for any counseling, but then, I didn't kill anyone. I just winged the bastard. And the only thing I felt even a little guilty about was my lousy aim and the terrific amount of climbing I'd gotten in during the prolonged period of suspension-with-pay.
My current suspension is for three months without pay. It's part of a negotiated plea agreement to avoid having criminal charges pressed against me for assaulting a fellow peace officer. The charges would have embarrassed both my office and the local sheriff's department the so-called "victim" was a member of. I've accepted three months without pay, an official reprimand, and been forced to make a half-assed apology. Kind of like with the prior suspension, the only guilt I feel is for not having hit the deputy harder.
Instead of continuing our usual subtle but tense banter in which my father will attempt to degrade my career choice and voice his preference for something more "professional," I'm surprised when he tries a new tack, mentioning Roberto for the first time himself.
"Do your bosses know about your brother, Agent Burns?"
"They know I've got one, but they don't know about any of the trouble. It probably wouldn't do my career much good if they found out."
This is something my father knows about firsthand. Just a few years ago he'd been on the verge of becoming one of the youngest generals in the Air Force. Then the crimes of his eldest son had come to the attention of the military. Dad ended up being denied further advancement. You don't become a general, the ultimate leader of men, when you've sired a felon. Fortunately for me, though, the Wyoming AG's Office doesn't concern itself much with background checks on family members prior to promotion. I make a mental note to mention this additional benefit the next time we argue on the career subject, but don't want to bring it up now that we're finally talking about Roberto.
"Do you know what he's using these days?"
"Not for sure. He's banging--injecting--I know that much."
My father nods. Even in magazine photographs, the tracks of scabby pinpricks on my brother's arms are hard to miss.
"So that leads me to guess it's either crank or heroin," I say. After a moment I add quietly, "There's not much out there that's worse, Dad. At least we don't have to worry anymore about him turning to harder drugs."