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Striding strongly, Frank Diacono emerged from the timberline spruce forest into alpine tundra. Usually he felt exhilarated when he hiked the high country; now he felt vaguely uneasy—vaguely enough that he wasn't consciously aware of it.

He'd hiked a long way since noon, first up the dirt road that led over Schultz Pass, turning off it to climb the steep winding jeep trail to Doyle Saddle, thence along the foot trail that circled inside the rim of the broad crater where the snow had finally melted beneath the summer sun. To his right, the crater wall fell away steeply. The old crater bottom below was heaped with bouldery glacial moraine, partly clad with stands of hardy aspens—an epitomal frost pocket. Most weeks in summer found night frosts in its depths, though it was less than a hundred miles from that great blast furnace, the Sonoran Desert.

Diacono, who'd grown up in Philadelphia, was as addicted to the Arizona back country as the demands on an assistant college football coach allowed. He'd even audited courses in geology, forestry, and ecology to better know and understand what he saw.

Ahead of him stood his goal, Humphrey Peak, highest of the peaks that ringed the crater. Its tundra was dusky rose in the sun's final rays, and Diacono quickened his pace. There was a notch between Humphrey and Agassiz Peaks, and for a little distance beyond it, the trail would be treacherous in twilight.

Another hiker was coming toward him on the other side of the notch, the only hiker he'd seen all day. The trail was narrow where they would meet, the slopes dangerously steep above and below, so when Diacono reached the notch, he waited there for the other man to get clear of the narrows. The other man was younger, and a bit in the old hippy mode, Diacono thought: slim but trail-rugged, his blond hair in a ponytail, a red bandana tied round his head.

The younger man stopped when they met, and sized up Frank Diacono's 240 pounds of bone and muscle. "Are you going on up Humphrey's tonight?" he asked.

"That's right."

"You going to sack down up there?"

Diacono nodded curtly, annoyed by what he considered intrusive questions.

The younger man got out of his way. "I guess you'll want to be moving along then," he said.

Diacono nodded and moved past. He'd gone only two or three steps when the other spoke after him. "Have you heard of the Indian spirit that lives up there?"

Stopping, Diacono looked back. Traditional Navajos and Hopis believed that a spirit, a god, dwelt there. The Forest Service protected the peak as an unofficial religious preserve for the tribes, restricting recreational development in the near vicinity. Not a superstitious man, Diacono nonetheless favored the action out of respect for tribal beliefs, and preferred the area without further disturbance anyway.

"I've heard of it," he admitted. "Why?"

The other man didn't answer at once, as if considering his words. Diacono waited, a trifle impatient.

"He ... doesn't like people camping on top of him at night. Not white men like you and me, anyway."

Diacono nodded, his annoyance somehow gone now. "I like this old mountain," he said mildly. "I won't be leaving any trash up there or disturbing anything, any more than I would in church."

For several seconds they looked at each other, not more than six feet apart. The younger man was lean-faced, his tan reddish. Diacono was massive, blue-jawed, his black hair almost crew cut, his tan not red at all.

"Right," the younger man said, nodding. "Have a good one."

"Same to you."

Diacono turned and went on. The light was beginning to fade noticeably, and when the trail reached the crest of the rim, a brisk breeze hit him, thin and cold. By the time he topped out on the peak, night was settling in. The first and brightest dozen stars were visible.

On the top was a small walled space, intermediate between a rectangle and an ellipse, and about six by ten feet. The walls, of roughly fitted rocks, were some three feet high, with a narrow opening in the south end. A good place to sleep sheltered from the wind, Diacono thought. He assumed that hikers had built the wall and removed the surface stones for comfortable sleeping. It didn't occur to him that Indians might have made it for another reason.

Taking off his pack, he knelt within the walled space. The wind had increased, to twenty-five knots or better now. He ate a handful of gorp, chewed a piece of beef jerky until he'd mastered and swallowed it, then swigged water from his canteen. After unrolling his thin ground pad, he spread his down sleeping bag on it. Then he put his canteen and boots by the head of his sleeping bag, rolled up his jeans for a pillow, and put wallet, watch, and pickup keys in a boot. Finally, he zipped himself into the bag with only his face exposed.

The wind, he quickly decided, was going to be a nuisance. It continued to get stronger; even there behind the wall it actually rippled the nylon casing of his sleeping bag with little popping sounds.

But the sky was utterly clear, visible stars increasing by the minute. At more than 12,600 feet elevation, the star display would soon be out of this world; in Philly, he'd never imagined such a sky.

While the casing of his sleeping bag popped in the wind, he fixed his eyes on one of the stars, the brightest in his field of vision, and began to feel ill at ease. The star moved, a common enough illusion when you lie on your back and fix your attention on one. He tried to hold it still with his eyes, but it moved erratically, jerking here and there over distances of ten degrees or more, pausing to glint, brightly stationary, for two or three seconds.

So large an apparent movement was new to him. Deliberately he withheld his attention from it, watching new stars gradually fill the empty darkness as the sky changed toward deep black. But any star he watched for more than a few seconds played the same trick.

As he watched, he became aware of anxiety, and gradually recognized dread. Blaming this on some mental effect of watching the stars, he closed his eyes. But that was no protection: Behind his lids were also erratic stars, and the dread intensified. Among these new stars were two lights, dull red, that gradually became more than stars.

They were eyes.

He opened his own to the night outside him. "Shit!" he muttered. Above him the stars jittered, and his sleeping bag rippled and snapped. Grimly he turned onto his side, bending legs and hips, and reclosed his eyes, determined to sleep.

And felt a growing cold, a cold deeper than discomfort, though he'd slept warm in this bag at much lower temperatures. Then the realization hit him, utterly illogical but with total certainty: If he spent the night there, he'd be dead before morning. It was that simple.

With an oath he sat up, fumbling for the zipper tab, and in seconds was stuffing his gear back into his packsack. Hurriedly he pulled on pants and put his canteen back on his belt. He didn't even take time to lace his boots, just wrapped and knotted the laces around his ankles, then fled, half running along the jumbly crest of a side ridge slanting down northward from the peak like a buttress to the crater.

The night seemed preternaturally dark, and he stumbled among low boulders until he realized he was at the head of the avalanche track above Abineau Canyon. Without hesitating he started down it, scarcely able to see the rocks at his feet.

Here the surface was slide rock, talus, most of the pieces flat plates and slabs that rocked and tilted at his weight or slid away beneath his feet as he scrambled downward among their dislodged clatter. But as he put distance between himself and the top, he calmed, slowing in response to the more immediate danger underfoot that could easily send him bouncing and sliding down the mountain.

It seemed lighter now, though the moon would not be up for hours, and he picked a zigzag course downward, finding and following the less steep ways. At last he reached the bottom of Abineau Canyon, and followed it until he came to a jeep trail. There, at the edge of spruce forest, he unrolled his sleeping bag again.

It occurred to him that the wind was not blowing here. The sky was bannered and glittering with stars which were steady and impersonal. And for the first time since he'd left the notch and the other hiker, he recalled what the younger man had said about the god in the peak.

He closed his eyes and only darkness was there—darkness and whatever pictures he chose to put there. His last waking thoughts were a question and an answer: What had happened on the peak—would it have happened if the hiker hadn't said what he had? The answer, Diacono decided, was yes.


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