"How f-f-far up are we?"
Martin stopped in his tracks and checked his altimeter. "One mile. On the dot."
James was feeling every inch of that. Each breath was a dagger in his chest. His body had begun to spasm oddly in reaction to the severe cold, and his teeth were chattering nonstop. Still, improbably, he pressed on, following Martin's lead into the biting wind and dense snowdrifts.
For his part, Martin seemed unfazed. He plodded through the slush and gravel with something resembling gusto, even humming when the mood struck him. James hated it, but a part of him was glad that at least one of them was in high spirits.
Did he know it would be this bad out here? If so, I would have appreciated a heads-up.
It was the end of a long day of climbing, and the two men were in search of a place to camp for the night. Before long, they came to a decently sized cove that offered natural wind barriers on three sides.
Noting the deteriorating conditions, Martin proposed that they pitch their tent immediately, even if it meant falling short of that day's scheduled stopping point. James agreed without a thought, too fatigued to even acknowledge the existence of higher, colder places on the mountain.
Once they'd stowed their materials and settled into the tent, Martin produced two tins of franks for them to eat. He had to pry the lids off of both, since James's fingers were too cold to properly grip the tab.
"Boy, you really took it hard today, didn't you?" asked Martin.
James could only nod.
"You sure you want to keep going? It's not too late to head back down, you know."
"No. I want to keep going. It's like I told you before: I'd rather be a frozen rich man than a warm-bodied peasant."
"Amen to that, friend," said Martin.
James picked a frank out of his can with a delicate finger and popped it into his mouth. He couldn't even feel the sauce on his hands. His sense of taste, however, was not similarly numbed.
"It seems peasant life has followed me up this mountain," he noted bitterly.
Martin grinned. "It shouldn't be long now. The medicine man told me that we should hit the swirl about a quarter mile up from here."
"I'll believe it when I see it."
"I don't need to see it. I can feel it from where we are. There's something running through this mountain, something untapped and pure. Haven't you seen how raw everything is up here? It's just waitin' for us to come along and draw it out, make a fortune out of it. Speaking of ..."
Martin rustled through his pack and withdrew a strange-looking jackhammer with a cylindrical bit. "This," said Martin proudly, "is the corer we'll be using. I forgot to show it to you before we took off. Thought you might want to know how it'll work."
James was only mildly interested. "Looks like a drill of some kind."
"More or less. Once we find the vein, we'll just line this up against the exposed bit and fire it up. As long as we follow the ore down through the rock, this baby'll spit out little nuggets for us to pocket. And then it's goodbye to this lovely scenery, hello to whatever it is you've been dreaming about for the past two days."
"That's sharp," said James distractedly as he felt another wave of exhaustion break over him. He visibly slouched to indicate his interest in sleep. Martin took the hint and put the corer away before pulling out his diary and a pencil.
James didn't have the same confidence that Martin did. He couldn't quite articulate it - in fact, he could barely even understand it - but there was something unnerving about the mountain. There were the obvious signs that the two of them weren't supposed to be up there, like the brutality of the elements and the total darkness that was now falling. But there was something else, too. A stubborn wildness radiated from the mountain, as if it resented each footstep planted on its face. James had the distinct feeling that their trek wasn't going to be as simple as finding a golden vein and popping out some pocket-sized nuggets.
No, something wanted them off of the mountain. As he felt his eyelids drooping, James just hoped it would permit them to sleep through the night.