The dogs returned around five in the morning, and the four men set out at first light, about an hour later. They set Dief and two of the other search dogs as the leads in their teams again, and let those older trained dogs choose the path. By mid-morning, they found the first signs of La Croix's sled, no more than half a day old, and followed it single-file.
Willis set up the radio and tuned the signal to the Fort Liard outpost.
"Willis to RCMP 1113," he said, then paused. There were a few seconds of static crackle, and he tuned the radio easily.
"RCMP 1113 to tracking party," a female voice answered. "Report."
Surprised, Willis glanced around the group, wondering if anyone recognized the woman's voice. Sergeant Fraser did not appear unduly concerned, so Willis continued relaying.
"We've, ah, located La Croix's sled tracks. We estimate them to be about half a day old."
"Due north-northwest," Fraser answered. "Still headed directly towards the Yukon border from this point."
Willis repeated the directions into his handset.
"Confirmation received. We're sending three officers to assist."
"Where's the drop-off point?" Willis asked, knowing there was no place for a bush plane to safely land within fifteen kilometres of their position.
"One moment." There was a long pause on the other end, long enough for them to discuss options and reach a decision.
"Hoyle's Lake," came the reply. "We'll intercept you by, ah, 1430 hours."
"Acknowledged," Fraser said. Willis nodded and repeated their reply. The only closer possible landing spot was too unstable in the Spring, since it was more of a swelled river than a true lake, and it had likely begun to melt two weeks earlier.
"RCMP 1113 clear."
"Willis clear," he replied. He switched off the transmitter, and began repacking the radio. "Anyone know who that was?" he asked, snapping the case shut and tying it down on the sled with bungee cords.
"Could've been one of the Nelson officers," Bohner said.
Fraser went back to his sled team, frowning slightly. Meg was not supposed to get involved in this. She was not on duty, and was therefore not obligated to assist. He sighed inwardly, knowing that there was nothing else that she would have done when she found out. He only hoped that she and the Fort Nelson officers would not be necessary.
The four Mounties urged the dogs forward and continued following the sled tracks for another two hours, without incident. La Croix followed a straightforward course, with a few variations, as Fraser had expected.
"Should we hold back, and try to trap him from behind when the others reach him from ahead?" Bohner asked, when they paused to feed the dogs for lunch.
"It depends on the situation. If he stops for the night before they intercept him and we have sufficient opportunity, we will do all we can to prevent him from escaping further," Fraser answered, bending down to readjust his second dog's harness. "If he continues through the night, we pursue him. I would prefer not to approach him until we have backup."
"You don't think we could take him?" Willis asked, frowning.
"We should be able to," Fraser answered, straightening up. "But I still advocate caution. Don't underestimate him."
"How did you catch him last time?" Lecrue asked, from his perch in Bohner's sled.
"I didn't," Fraser replied. "He came to us."
"The report didn't say he turned himself in!" Willis exclaimed.
"No," Fraser said, going back to his sled. "But he knew what he was walking into."
"He was foolhardy, a man with a self-imposed mission," Bohner said calmly, confident from his reading of the RCMP report. "He didn't give himself up."
Fraser simply shook his head and whistled to his resting team. They were alert and ready to go in a moment. He gave a nod to the other three men, and then raced on ahead. They followed not far behind him.
Meg leapt down from the bush plane and turned to pick up her pack from the snow, where she had dropped it. The two Fort Nelson officers jumped down beside her, and they jogged a short distance away in the snow, waving the plane off. The bush plane had come from Fort Nelson with the officers and had stopped in Fort Liard to wait for a tracking confirmation signal. With Fraser's team following on La Croix's heels, they had a good reference point on where to land. Meg was wound up with anticipation and she forced herself to breathe, relax, and get their bearings.
"We're about five and a half hours from the Liard team's probable current position," Constable Ankers said, consulting his compass. "Assuming they continued their heading, they should reach us in...ah..."
"In short order," Meg said, shouldering her pack, and not needing to hear the exact calculations. Ankers had already established himself as something of an algebra aficionado who appeared to have joined the RCMP for its seeming wealth of new word problems. She was not in the mood for it. "Let's head out and keep sharp." The second officer, Constable Will Harding, nodded and fell into step behind her. He, at least, seemed to have their goal properly fixed in mind.
They headed almost due south for three hours, and then a movement far ahead of them in the woods dropped Meg to a crouch with a hiss of, "Down!"
Harding and Ankers dropped down beside her. They paused in silence for several long seconds. The shadowy figure continued its slow trek in between the trees ahead of them.
"What is it, sir?" Harding asked. Meg frowned and made a quick hand movement to quiet him, her eyes still fixed on the figure.
"I don't see anything," Ankers whispered.
"Up there, about seventy metres ahead," Meg said.
The other two Mounties peered ahead, but heard and saw nothing. They glanced at one another and shrugged.
"Still don't see it, sir," Harding said. Meg turned to look back at them.
"You don't? Look, there—" she pointed ahead, and turned to look, but the figure was gone. Surprised, she frowned. "That's funny..."
"Let's continue," Ankers said, after a few seconds. Meg nodded, and they kept going.
Fifteen minutes later, she saw it again.
"There!" she hissed, and dropped to a crouch. Once again, they followed suit.
"What are you looking at, sir?" Ankers asked.
"A...man, I think," Meg answered, pulling out her binoculars. She focused in on the figure. He seemed farther away in the eyesights than she had expected him to be, but he was clearer. And familiar. Too familiar, in fact. She had an unexplainable feeling in the pit of her stomach that made her uneasy. He was not tall, but he walked with the air of someone much larger. Grey-haired, wearing snowshoes. He paused in the sights, and then turned to look back directly at her, as if he knew she was watching him.
All at once, she recognized the old man, and fear clutched at her heart. His steel-blue eyes cut across the distance between them, and the cold fingers of a wind reached out to her. She shivered under her warm parka. After a moment, he turned and continued on.
She folded up and tucked her binoculars back into her pocket, then rose. Ankers and Harding had been respectfully silent behind her, but she knew they would not remain that way for long.
"Come on," she said, and struck off directly towards the old man.
"Hey—we're not heading quite right," Ankers said a few minutes later, frowning down at his compass.
"Yes we are," Meg answered, with conviction, and continued on. The two men obeyed her lead, and they plunged on through the snow.
Fraser and his team followed the sled tracks for another six kilometres, and came to the place where La Croix had stopped to feed his own team. They were catching up to him, but slowly, as his dogs were beginning to tire from the extended race across the territory. They studied the marks for a short while, determining how long he had stayed, and how heavy the sled was, and his probable speed. Fraser estimated their meeting up with him within five kilometres' travel time, and they redoubled their efforts.
As they neared the spot, however, they saw no hint that La Croix's sled was slowing or any nearer than before. Fraser decided on caution, and he examined the area around the point where he had expected to catch a glimpse of the fugitive. There were no signs of anything unusual in the tracks, and so Willis struck out ahead, then Fraser's team, followed by Bohner and Lecrue, the slowest team because of their combined weight. As they were rounding a bend and approaching a steeper down-slope toward a river's edge, there was a muffled explosion, and Fraser saw Willis's team and sled flip over, plowing into the snow drift ahead of him. He immediately called a stop to his dogs, just as Dief leapt onto another trap and was thrown backwards a metre and a half by a smaller explosion. Amidst the frightened yelping of the dogs and the spray of snow falling from the explosions, Fraser overturned his sled and crouched down behind it, quickly pulling out his rifle and cocking it.
He glanced swiftly behind him, and saw Bohner and Lecrue turning the dogs back towards the tree cover to their right. He saw a snow drift that seemed suspiciously out of place that was directly in their path, and shouted, "GO LEFT!" down the slight incline. He saw Bohner notice it also and react, heaving the sled to the left to avoid it—but the weight of the sled, with Lecrue in it, pushed through the snow covering anyway, and the force of the explosion a half-second later threw Bohner over the front of his sled, at the same time launching the whole sled, Lecrue, and the harnessed team two metres into the air, tumbling end-over-end in a twist of limbs, wooden slats, and leather harnesses that were dragging the panicked dogs. Fraser cringed at the sight of the resulting pile that lay broken at the base of the incline where they had come up, just a few metres from their original path.
He took a few moments to just breathe, and then listened. He heard a moan from Willis, and looking farther up La Croix's sled-path towards his fallen officer, he cursed himself for not noticing the difference in the indentations made by the sled's slats. They were about the same depth in the snow as before, but the cut was now tilted slightly farther on one slat than on the other. A man on the sled would carry his weight as evenly as possible, so as not to unbalance the sled and slow down the team. These slats, however, had an unbalanced weight on one side, and that could only mean that La Croix had moved all the weight to the back of his sled, and that it had slipped to one side by just a few centimetres. A man in a hurry without time to check the right weight balance. And how had he gotten off his sled without footprints being noticed? A low-hanging branch, possibly. They had passed under a few close trees only a short distance back.
He had missed that little detail, and it had possibly cost two men their lives. He suppressed the anger at himself and at La Croix that started to rise up in his chest, and he focussed on his surroundings. La Croix, given that he had at least a forty-five minute head start on them by this time, must have raced out to this point, laid scent for the dogs to find as they continued to run without him, and set up traps around this whole hollow.
Fraser listened, straining to hear the slightest crunch of snow beneath a boot. He heard a tiny metallic sound come from Willis, amid the sounds of his team's whimpering dogs. Good, he had started the beacon for the other team to find this location. He only hoped that La Croix had not noticed. Good man, he thought, making a note to commend Willis later. Assuming there is a later... He pushed the thought out of his mind just as a gunshot rang out, spraying broken clumps of snow and ice all over his legs. He froze.
"Unload your rifle, Mountie, and drop all the rounds on the snow, half a metre to your right," a slightly raspy but calm voice said, coming from a grove of trees near the top of the embankment to Fraser's right.
Fraser obeyed, slowly, emptying the magazine into his right hand, and then throwing the bullets off into the snow as instructed. He removed the last round from the chamber and left it with the others.
"Now lay your rifle down under the sled and stand up, slowly, with your hands where I can see them."
Fraser complied, and looked up at the source of the voice. He thought he could see two eyes piercing out through the darkness under the trees. A moment later, he heard a slight, raspy laugh.
"Why, it's Constable Benton Fraser," the figure crouched in the shadows said, and Fraser saw a flash of teeth. "Long time no see, eh?" He laughed again. "I'm doing well, thanks for asking."
Fraser let a small, tight smile onto his face. "I'm glad to hear that, Macon."
"I'm sure you are. Now," the figure stood up smoothly, and Fraser could see more of his outline. "You walk yourself over to your fallen comrade, there, and pick up the beacon he just turned on. Keep your hands out in front of you."
Fraser set his jaw and nodded, then stepped around his overturned sled and walked the few metres over to Willis, who lay with his eyes closed, the side of his face pressed into the snow. Fraser crouched down, slowly. He could see white lines of tension in the skin around the officer's eyes: signs of pain.
"How are you, Constable?" he asked, pushing out the slight shake in his voice by concentrating on the fallen man.
"Good, sir," Willis said quietly, and opened his eyes. He was faced away from La Croix, and he flicked his eyes down to where Fraser knew he had his firearm. Fraser shook his head just slightly.
"Good choice," La Croix said from the trees, watching the exchange like a hawk. "Now the beacon."
Fraser bent down, searched through Willis's clothing, and found the small transmitter unit in the man's coat pocket. He held it up for La Croix to see.
"Drop it in the snow to your right."
Fraser lobbed the little device a short distance away and La Croix's second bullet shattered it before it hit the snow. Fraser got the point.
"Now his rifle and sidearm, too," La Croix said calmly, and Fraser emptied out Willis's rifle and handgun just as he had done with his own. He hoped that Bohner and Lecrue were alive, and awake.
"Why are you going to all this trouble? Two more years and they would have let you go wherever you wanted to." Fraser asked, after finishing with the handgun and dropping it in the snow. They were not going to get out of this one with brute force; their only hope was to stall La Croix long enough for the other team to make it in.
"Lace your fingers and put your hands on your head, then walk up this incline, to your left," the fugitive said, ignoring the question. Fraser did as he asked, his hands over his Stetson, and he fleetingly considered the possibility of throwing it at some point, but discarded the idea. He had told his men not to underestimate La Croix, and he would be foolish not to take his own advice.
Fraser was better able to see La Croix when he entered the shadows in the trees. La Croix gestured with his rifle towards a spot farther in, and Fraser saw the makings of small explosives and a simple campsite.
Unwillingly, and against all instinct, he obeyed.
He heard the crunching of boots against snow approach from behind him, and felt a rifle barrel poke insistently into his back. He was nudged forward about four metres. He stepped up to a short distance from where the ground began dropping off down to the river.
"Drop your hands. You move, I shoot. Got it?"
"Yes," Fraser answered, lowering his hands to his sides.
La Croix knocked off his Stetson with the barrel, and it tumbled down in front of him and tilted a bit when it landed in the snow. For some reason, the sight suddenly brought Meg to his mind, and he swallowed back a regret that lodged itself in his chest.
"You want to know why I'm going to all this trouble?" La Croix growled.
"I would like to understand, yes."
La Croix paused, and a sort of humor entered his tone. "You probably actually would," he said. "Well, it's just this: no man has a right to keep me in chains. Now I'm going home, and I am forced to go through you to do it. No hard feelings. I hope you'll understand, I need to do this."
He heard La Croix move swiftly behind him and he thought of possibilities for turning to fight, to duck, but all that settled clearly in his mind was a simple, frustrated, Meg, I'm sorry...
And then there was a crack, and an intense red pain bloomed in the back of his head, and his world went black as he crumpled in the snow.
At the sound of the first faint gunshot, Meg drew in a sharp breath and stopped, listening to the report echo through the hills for a long moment. The old man had disappeared from view, and Meg took that as a sign that they were near their destination. Meg was not one to follow disappearing shadows, but there was something terribly insistent about this one, and she had felt compelled to follow. By now, they were off La Croix's projected path by nearly eight kilometres, and Ankers was in paroxysms of horror at the unexplained deviation.
At the sound of the gunshot, however, he stopped his protests, and they all froze to listen for any further report. They began hiking more quickly towards the source of the sound, and were further guided by a second shot only a minute later. At this, they broke into a run.
"The river's only about a kilometre from here," Ankers breathed.
"Good," said Meg, and continued running, keeping her senses sharp.
When Fraser woke a few minutes later—he noted the position of the sun; it was still nearly in the same place above the horizon—he was bound hand and foot. Little rivulets of his blood had run down inside his collar, and the skin was wet and itchy. He tried an experimental movement with his head, and pain blossomed through his skull He squeezed his eyes shut with a wince. After waiting a few moments to regain his bearings, he paused to listen. Water faintly trickled down near the river, but the woods around him were largely silent. He tried his bonds, but they were well-knotted, and his hunting knife was gone from its boot sheath. He would be at it for too long trying to get out of the ropes unassisted, in this position.
Amidst some groaning and shifting, he managed to get himself to his feet, and he shuffled the short distance to the edge of the hollow where his sled would be, and took stock of the situation. Willis's eyes were closed, and he was lying in a different position than before, apparently unconscious. The three front dogs from his sled were missing, along with their harnesses, and there were boot-prints in the snow, leading them down to the river. Fraser looked down at the tangle of slats, gear, harnesses, and dogs that had been his sled, and was pleased to find that Dief's place at the head of the line was empty, though the harness remained.
The half-wolf had extricated himself from the harness, a trick that Fraser had taught him long ago for just such a situation as this. The ability had been used a few times for purposes other than what Fraser had intended, but he was thankful now that Diefenbaker had been able to do it, despite the crash and the explosion. There was no blood around his spot in the snow, so the explosion had not apparently caused the wolf serious harm. Fraser looked around, but did not see a sign of Diefenbaker anywhere. His tracks led off through the hollow, in the direction of the water that lay down below, at the base of the incline.
Fraser set his teeth and gave a short whistle. Not loud, but enough. He dropped down to his knees, winced at the jarring, and rolled himself into a sitting position, to wait. Wherever the half-wolf was, he was well hidden. Fraser looked down at the hollow. The rifles, handgun, and cartridges were gone, picked up by La Croix. The sled dogs watched him silently. One of them from Willis's sled was not moving; Fraser wondered if he was all right. From what he could see of Bohner's and Lecrue's sled, one dog was whimpering and trying to pull itself forward, but nothing else was moving. Fraser closed his eyes.
A few moments later, a cold, wet snout nudged him behind his left ear, and he broke into a quick, relieved smile, and turned to look at his half-wolf, who snuffled a short greeting.
"Diefenbaker! Thank God you're all right!" he breathed, shifting his weight forward so he could expose his bound wrists. "Quick!"
Dief understood, and examined the knots for half a minute. When Fraser felt the animal's warm breath across his hands, as Dief started tugging on the rope with his teeth bared, he nodded curtly. "That's it."
Fraser looked up at the sound of a large canvas something landing on something else.
"Do you hear that?"
Dief paused a moment from his tugging and whined softly.
"Good, good, he's still here. Hurry!"
Dief snuffled briefly and loosened a knot. Two minutes later, Fraser started to feel some give on the ropes. "Let me try," he said, and Dief stepped back. Fraser craned his wrists, and grasped a few loose loops. He explored for a few seconds, and then finished loosening the now-damp knots. He shook the bonds off a minute later, and quickly untied his ankles. He got up, rubbing his wrists for circulation, retrieved his Stetson, and looked towards where the ground curved down towards the melting river.
Dief snuffed a quick reply and trotted to the edge, then crouched down in the snow. Fraser followed his example and crouched down beside him, to take stock of the situation.
At the edge of the river, La Croix was almost finished wrapping up his sled. He had retrieved the booby-traps; Fraser could see the snow-encrusted cans lashed to the back of the sled. He was tying down a canvas tarp and securing the corners. Fraser estimated about three minutes before the man would be ready to leave. La Croix had added the three dogs from Willis's sled to his own team, and they were worrying at their harnesses.
"We have no weapons."
Dief snuffed agreement. Fraser thought for a moment.
"Go left, hide yourself as near him as you can. At my signal, charge him. Be silent."
"Good. Go." Dief darted away, streaking through the darkening woods, down the incline. Fraser took off running towards the right, in a half-crouch. He stayed low, and reached the edge of the tree line without being seen, about eight metres from his quarry, facing his back.
Meg, Ankers, and Harding reached the edge above the river embankment, and crouched low for a moment, to confer. La Croix was down below them, out ahead a short way across the swollen, melting river basin. There were spots that looked stable enough, but there was enough fast-flowing water trickling under the edges of the ice that Meg knew it was deceptive. The only reason there was ice on this part of the river at all was that it was slowly becoming a lake, before the run-off point some distance downriver. It wouldn't remain frozen for much longer in the season, though, and even now, great groaning cracks could be heard periodically as the ice sheets weakened and moved.
Watching La Croix, she frowned as she saw movement in the trees behind him, on the far side of the river basin. A white wolf streaked through the woods. She saw another darkened figure moving swiftly and carefully down the embankment under the tree cover. They did not have much time; she dropped a quick silent thanks to whomever was responsible for leading them to this spot, and then made a decision.
"You take the right, position yourself as well as you can on the embankment downriver. Take a shot as soon as it's clear."
"Yes, sir," Ankers nodded, tucking his compass into the pocket of his RCMP-issue coat. Drawing his handgun, he slid carefully down to the right and disappeared from view. Meg turned to Harding.
"Take the left?" he asked, drawing his own weapon.
"Just take care he doesn't see you," she answered with a curt nod. "He's facing this direction."
"I will, sir."
Meg nodded, and the second Mountie matched his partner's actions, quickly moving into place. Meg checked the handgun that Stoughton had given her, made sure a bullet was in the chamber, and then tucked it back away. She began a stealthy climb down through the trees to a closer point.
Fraser took a deep breath to clear his head of the pain that was now a dull throbbing at the base of his skull, brought on from his exertion in getting down the hill. He cleared his throat softly and swallowed, then raised himself to his full height and stepped out into the open.
The man spun around, picking up his rifle in one smooth motion and levelling it at Fraser, as the Mountie approached. He smiled tightly, in reluctant admiration.
"You wriggled out fast."
"I'm sorry, but I can't allow you to leave."
La Croix smiled. "Really?"
"Really." Fraser continued walking, slowly.
The smile disappeared from La Croix's face.
"Stop. Right there."
Fraser took two more steps, putting him about six metres from the end of the rifle, and made a small hand movement at his side.
"Please put your weapon down on the ground and put your hands over your head," he said, starting to approach again.
"You're crazy, man," La Croix growled, and Fraser saw his finger start to tighten on the trigger. He dropped and rolled to the left just as Dief came streaking out of the woods and launched himself at the huge man. La Croix saw the flash of white fur in movement on his right, and he swung the rifle up to block Dief's charge.
The shot went wild, and Dief landed on him a second later, knocking the rifle from his grasp. The man staggered and managed to crouch, but did not fall, and Dief, growling, attacked him. He sunk his fangs into La Croix's arm. La Croix shoved at Dief, but Dief held fast, scrabbling at the man's chest with his paws.
Fraser got up from his roll just as La Croix had gotten his knife from his clothing with his free hand.
"No!" he shouted, dashing forward just as La Croix brought the knife up in a deadly arc and stabbed it deep into Dief's side.
Dief barked in surprise and pain and staggered back, letting go of the arm as La Croix pulled the knife out of his ribs. He limped a step and fell, and then Fraser was on La Croix a second later. This time the big man did fall when Fraser barrelled into him, grabbing the knife-wrist and twisting it savagely to dislodge the weapon. He knocked La Croix's head back into the snow with his fist and twisted the wrist harder.
La Croix dropped the knife with a grunt, and swung his free fist into Fraser's cheek, hard, splitting it. Fraser reeled back for a moment, and La Croix took the opportunity to bring his knee up into Fraser's stomach. The sudden pain loosened his grip on the wrist that had held the knife, and La Croix slipped his hand out of the Mountie's grasp and tried another attack. Fraser dropped back in a roll to avoid the next punch. He elbowed La Croix in the neck just as the big man started to climb on top of him, and they went for another roll. Fraser pushed up, taking La Croix's momentum and using it to continue to wheel him back down again. He was at the disadvantage in strength and body mass, and the only way to keep the attack on his side was to prevent La Croix from being able to use his advantage. He had to keep moving, to keep landing solid hits.
It did not work for long, though, as La Croix deflected Fraser's next swing and rolled into a tight manoeuver with unexpected agility, putting Fraser underneath and revealing his knife, which was lying pressed into the snow where they had just been. Fraser saw La Croix move towards picking it up, and he kicked out, shoving La Croix up for a second, enough time to knock the knife farther away with his right hand. La Croix regained his balance and backhanded Fraser, who had left his head exposed in his attempt to push away the knife. In the short time that Fraser was stunned, La Croix grabbed the knife and brought it back. Fraser looked up, saw the gleam on the metal, and reached up to hold back the hand with the knife. They were locked in the battle of strength for several seconds, which Fraser, straining, knew that he was gradually losing. The ice beneath them shifted, and Fraser felt it weakening under their combined weight.
"If you...hadn't...attacked me, I would have left you alone," La Croix ground out, pushing down. Fraser didn't respond, instead focusing everything he had on fighting back at La Croix. The bigger man did not budge, for all of the Mountie's straining. A crack began to open in the ice underneath him, and he fought to roll La Croix sideways.
La Croix slammed his knee down into the ice while trying to pin Fraser down, and the crack beneath them groaned, losing integrity.
"I just want...to be...free," La Croix said, his face strained, drops of blood from his split lip landing on Fraser's chin.
"I'm...sorry," Fraser ground out. La Croix pushed hard, and Fraser felt the knife inching closer. His arms burned with the effort of fighting back, and he felt his muscles giving out. He could hear the thousands of tiny cracks opening in the snow-and-ice layer underneath his head, and he struggled to get out from under La Croix's weight. The big man seemed to be oblivious to their crumbling ground.
Impatient to break the battle of strength, La Croix growled and pushed his whole weight down and forward, twisting his wrist, and Fraser cried out as his grip broke and the knife slid down, grazing his cheek as he managed to deflect it with his right arm.
A shot rang out across the frozen lake, the report echoing around the hills for a full five seconds, and as if in slow motion, Fraser saw La Croix's eyes widen as he arched back, a red blossom growing on his shoulder, and then the big man was thrown up off him, and he landed in a heavy heap in the snow, next to Fraser. The ice cracked and shifted at the force of his fall, and the big man's eyes showed surprise as they fell into the freezing current, his weight cracking the last strength in the surface beneath them.
Fraser gasped at the sudden needles of cold pain that attacked every inch of his skin, feeling the icy water numb his strength as he tried to pull out from under the current swirling from La Croix's falling weight. Pink blossomed in the water, and Fraser fought for the surface, against the current, against the icy ceiling, against the swirling, numbing, dark water. His feet found and scrabbled at the bottom, and he pushed himself up, desperately fighting not to take in a breath. La Croix's body caught Fraser's leg in an underarm and then slipped off, caught away in the cold, dark current beneath him. He tried to reach for the big man's body, but his numb fingers would not respond and he did not have the air to continue trying. He dragged himself up and through the broken clumps of floating snow and ice, and made it the few feet to shore. He slumped to the ice-covered stones and heaved for breath.
He could faintly hear someone calling his name through the rushing in his ears, and he struggled to move towards the sound, shivering uncontrollably.