Sam and Becky-Lou rounded off their 'getting to know you Monday' with supper in the canteen in the company of their team-mates, who obligingly joined in B-J's crazy game and treated him like a complete stranger that needed to become acquainted with them all over again. They were used to his practical jokes and way out ways, and found this every bit as amusing as the time last year when he'd pretended he was a foreign exchange student who couldn't understand a word of English.
After the meal, which Sam made sure Becky tucked into heartily, they all adjourned to one of the social areas: a huge bar room with open fire, thick pile carpet on the floor and oak beams on the ceiling, lots of easy chairs and a warm friendly atmosphere.
Becky-Lou fetched her Appalachian dulcimer, and B-J's guitar. Ritchie had a guitar of his own. One or two members of other ski teams had instruments too.
Before long, by mutual unspoken consent, a sizeable group had gathered around the fireplace, and began a spontaneous jamming session.
First to emerge were some classic ballads from the thirties and forties, to which most of the room joined in – crooning the familiar lyrics their parents had raised them on. Songs like 'Smoke gets in your eyes' brought smiles all round as the log-fire crackled and blazed in their midst. 'Thanks for the memory' had them all nostalgic about the experience of being at the try-outs, while, 'The way you look tonight' had the desired effect of getting the girls snuggling up to their boyfriends.
Most of the girls did indeed look stunningly attractive, in the simple, innocent way girls did in those days. Soft baby pink, lemon, mint green and sky blue, peach and lavender – delicate pastel shades that wouldn't look out of place in a nursery - adorned their willowy frames. Sweaters buttoned over thin white figure hugging tops, or were tied over the shoulders by the sleeves like something from the chorus line of Grease, while matching colored knee-length circular skirts with yards of net petticoats emphasized their femininity.
Bobby socks and sneakers adorned their shapely ankles, and pony tails and bunches tied up with flimsy chiffon scarves bobbed rhythmically as the girls moved their heads in time to the music.
Some wag from another team had them in stitches when he and his girlfriend insisted on serenading them with the supremely appropriate 'Baby, its cold outside',
Sam was surprised at how many of the lyrics he knew, since the songs were mostly 'before his time', and even more amazed at how many he seemed to remember despite his Swiss-cheesed memory. Though his right wrist was still bandaged against his supposed 'injury', he slipped his arm out of the sling and managed to play along with the others, strumming left-handed and adopting with ease B-J's rare style of playing 'finger guitar'.
He smiled at Becky-Lou, and he smiled to himself. He was having fun. These were as companionable a bunch of teenagers as you could hope to meet and off-piste all hint of rivalry was gone. They were just a bunch of wholesome kids having a great time.
Hank and the other coaches watched from the bar, supping beers and joining in with the singing, or chatting about the competition, and which kids they admired from each others teams, and generally being sociable.
It was a thoroughly pleasant evening.
After a while, the influence of the Tennessee crowd, who were by far the most melodious of the teams, won through over the rest, and a Country and Western flavor crept into the song choices.
Sam knew from B-J's diary that he and Becky-Lou had been brought up on a diet of Grand Ole Opry. Trips to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville on special selected Saturday nights were the highlight of their social calendar. When one of the less rural lads dared to suggest good-naturedly that Country music was dying out, and that the new rock and roll would soon relegate it to obscurity, Sam told him that Country would always have a 'grass-roots' following, and would in fact enjoy repeated revivals in popularity as time passed. He wouldn't mind betting, he attested, that by the turn of the millennium, not only would Country music still be going strong, not just in America but throughout Europe too, but that a whole channel of television would be dedicated to it! Naturally, this prediction met with some skepticism. Though programs like 'The Lone Ranger' were popular with audiences nationwide, they could not conceive of the demand for Country songs to that extent, nor would they have believed, if told, in the proliferation of specialist satellite channels to come.
Sam just smiled, not pressing the point. CMT would have its day.
The Tennessee Waltz had given way to the Yellow Rose of Texas, and that in its turn faded into Rosemary Clooney's 'This Old House'. Tammy did a more than fair impersonation of that good lady, and the whole room applauded her performance.
Very few of those assembled failed to join in the encore.
Thus the evening wore on, through "Island in the Sun" and beyond "Vaya Con Dios", and Sam had so completely relaxed and let his guard down that when things blew up in his face he was taken totally by surprise.
It was getting late, and one or two people were starting to drift away from the homespun concert. Conversations gradually took over among small groups, and inevitably the talk turned to the dramatic events of the previous day. Someone asked a member of the Bishop team if there was any news of Jill Kinmont, and at once Becky-Lou stopped singing to listen, even though she and B-J were currently regaling those still gathered with 'their song', the ever-popular "Too Young".
The only news was that there was as yet no news to report, though rumors varied from her having no more than a broken leg to the expectation that she would not live through the night.
Becky-Lou looked horrified, let out a gasp and turned to B-J for reassurance. She grabbed him tightly by the arm.
"She isn't going to die, is she B-J? Jill can't die, she just can't." Tears sprung to Becky's eyes, and she chewed her lip. Then she shook her head vehemently in denial. "She'll be back on the slopes in no time, won't she." It was a statement, not a question, said with such conviction that it was as if saying it could make it so.
Sam knew exactly what the prognosis was, though of course he couldn't admit it.
"I'm sure she's not about to die." He comforted her confidently, and her face lit up at the proclamation, until he qualified his statement with the addendum, "but she was badly hurt. We have to face the possibility that she may not be able to ski again."
He thought he was gently preparing her for the harsh reality of what was to come, but he had forgotten for a moment how intense Becky-Lou could be, and how much she took things to heart.
"Don't say that!" she shrieked, standing up and swiping him with a flailing arm, "Don't you dare say that. It's not true. It's not true. It can't be true." She stamped her foot petulantly and then turned on her heel, storming across the room and out the door, tears streaming down her face, leaving Sam staring incredulously after her, his jaw hanging, his hand rubbing a red and stinging cheek.
'Here we go again!' he thought to himself with a sigh, getting up to follow her. He remembered all too well the drastic consequences of leaving her to cool off alone last time, and he had no intention of repeating the error.
Passing his guitar to Ritchie, he headed for the door, telling Tammy he could manage when she offered to come along. The others just rolled their eyes and raised their eyebrows at him, as much as to say that they wondered why B-J put up with her. At times like this, Sam wondered too. She was certainly what you could call a 'high maintenance' partner.
On his way past, Sam had the forethought to grab their padded jackets from the hooks in the porch. It was late, it was dark, and it was very, very cold outside. As soon as he crossed the threshold, Sam could see his breath billowing out in great steaming clouds as he called out after his errant 'girlfriend'.
Becky-Lou had managed to get a big head start on him, her temper fuelling her limbs to haste; he could barely discern her retreating figure in the distance as she charged up the hill. If she heard him calling, she gave no sign of it. She neither paused nor turned her head, but continued to widen the gap between them. Sam found himself running to catch up, struggling into his jacket without breaking stride, then tucking hers under his arm.
"Becky-Lou, wait! Come back!" he yelled again, but soon realized that he was wasting his breath, and that he needed all of that in abundance for the mountaineering he'd have to undertake if he was to retrieve her. For someone who less than 24 hours ago had been almost at death's door, she was exhibiting plenty of stamina. Sam started thinking that he must be getting old, if she could be giving him such a run for his money.
After a while, Sam's pace slowed. Firstly, he was well and truly out of breath, his lungs aching as he gulped in the icy air. Secondly, they were now way off the trail, and with no lighting of any sort to guide him, Sam had to lower his eyes frequently to confirm his footing. The snow felt strange underfoot up here, and Sam found himself stumbling and struggling to keep on his feet. He alternated between looking down at his pathway, keeping his head low on his chest against the bitter wind, and looking up ahead for some sign of Becky-Lou, who had by now completely vanished from sight.
The night was cloudy, starless, and oppressive in its darkness. Sam soon lost all sense of direction and distance. He felt as if he had been climbing for miles - for hours.
The wind intensified, whisking up the fresh top layer of snow and forming spindrift, which swirled around, whipping up to a waist high frenzy. The airborne powder snow made him feel as if he were suffocating. The rush of cold air in his face brought tears to his eyes, further hindering his progress. It was like being in a sandstorm in the desert, only much, much colder.
He was chilled to the bone, despite having donned the gloves from his pocket. In the absence of a scarf he wrapped his sling like a robber's mask around his lower face to filter the cold dusty air that hurt the back of his throat as he breathed. He ached with weariness, and the temptation was strong to slip into a thick part of the forest, curl up against a tree and sleep till daylight. Nevertheless he determinedly kept going, knowing that Becky-Lou would be feeling even colder and more tired without even her coat to protect her.
Every now and then, he called her again, though his voice was thin and weak, and his throat felt dry and constricted. The sound of his voice was carried back to him on the eddying wind, and when it finally subsided, his cry was swallowed in the dull acoustics of the snowy surround. 'Where are you, Al?' he wondered to himself, needing the comfort of company almost as much as he needed the hologram's wisdom and the light the hand-link could afford him.
"Admiral?" Ziggy's velvety tones intruded on Al's maudlin musings. He had returned to his leather armchair, and was sitting staring as earlier, his mind dwelling on thoughts of the past and concerns of the present.
"Not now, Zig." He mumbled. "I told Tina I'd talk to her tomorrow. You try and make her see reason will you? I can't deal with her snit tonight." He made a dismissive gesture with his hand.
"Admiral Calavicci!" The voice was more insistent, and the tone slightly critical.
"What? Can't it wait, you inconsiderate bucket of bolts?" Al snapped.
"Why of course, Admiral. I can see that you are extremely busy with matters of great urgency and vital importance." Ziggy was not programmed with sarcasm, but she exuded it nonetheless.
Al merely snorted in response.
"Of course, if your silent sulk is more pressing than the fact that I am currently predicting Doctor Beckett to have a life expectancy of less than ten minutes…?"
"Whaaat?" Al was on his feet at once, and out of the door in 3 steps. "Why the hell didn't you say so in the first place?" he shot at the ether, knowing that Ziggy could hear and respond wherever he was.
"As you are well aware, Admiral, protocol demands that I normally wait until I am asked. However, since that seemed unlikely in this instance and my father does not have the luxury of waiting upon your mood swings…" "Can it, Zig! Just tell me what's going on, and what we have to do to save Sam."
Ziggy had apprised him of the situation by the time he arrived at Control, and once more Gushie passed him the hand-link as he made his way up the ramp to the Imaging Chamber door…
In the Project canteen, the crowd was thinning out as the news slowed to a virtual standstill. The same few bits of footage was being shown over and over again, and all that was changing were the figures in the corner of the screen showing the numbers of confirmed dead and injured, which continued to rise as more were pulled from the depths of the disaster zone. Most of those who'd gathered to watch had stuck it out for a couple of hours, hoping to see something new, something encouraging, but there came a limit to how many times they could witness the same scenes of carnage, the same bloodstained bodies and shocked faces.
When the happier group had been watching Robyn's hilarious performance, they had piled a dish high with chocolate éclairs, donuts, biscuits, sweets and treats of all kinds, which they had dipped into as they watched engrossed. Though there were still a few delicacies left, it had been totally forgotten, as the larger crowd had been riveted to the screen with its horrific images of death and destruction and suffering. Only now, as the majority moved away, Patti instinctively reached for some comfort food, and was about to close her fingers around a chocolate glazed donut when Rusty stopped her, putting a gently restraining hand of his own over hers.
"I know you're upset by all this hon, but it's no excuse to slip off the wagon now…"
Patti looked up at him, and then stared at the offending item almost in her grasp, as if surprised to see it there.
"Oh, sorry, I wasn't thinking." She squirmed a little at how close she had come to cheating on her diet, to giving in to her chocoholic cravings. Rusty had been helping her to give up chocolate, and so far she had been doing really well. His support and encouragement had made it relatively easy to resist temptation, and the steady, visible weight loss had spurred her on to continued effort. She was feeling fitter, more energetic already, and the thought of being able to order her wedding dress a size or two smaller was enough to keep her well motivated.
"I think we need a break from this doom and gloom too." Rusty decided, rising to his feet. "I'll leave the set here in case anyone wants to drop in for an update."
The one or two still left nodded their thanks, and assured him his property would be safe.
"C'mon Patti," Rusty leaned in and whispered in her ear, "let's see if I can find a substitute comforter for you to wrap your tonsils round, one that isn't fattening!"
"Ralph Kincaid!" Patti pretended to be shocked at his blatant hint, and swiped him playfully on the arm. "Hush your mouth, somebody might hear you!"
Far from complying with her request for tact, Rusty led her out whispering further suggestions, such as wondering if she was up for a workout to burn off a few calories. She knew full well he wasn't suggesting several laps on her exercise bike. A part of her felt guilty for even thinking of being so self-indulgent when so many people were dead and dying and suffering. Yet there was nothing to be gained for those poor souls in her making herself more miserable, and a romp with Rusty was too tempting a prospect to pass up. Sad yet true was the saying that life went on…
For the second time this leap, Al appeared like a genii from a bottle in response to Sam's silent summons, and for the second time, it startled him.
"How do you do that?" Sam hissed.
"What?" Al looked about him innocently, though he guessed exactly what Sam was referring to. Another time, he'd have strung it out, made a big play, done some heavy duty teasing about being a mind reader and all that. But time - as Ziggy had so bluntly pointed out - was a luxury they did not have.
"Listen, Sam…" Al started to warn his friend of the impending danger, but Sam interrupted him, not heeding his urgent tone.
"However you got here so fast, Al, I'm glad you showed up. Have Gushie center you on Becky-Lou. She's run off again and…" Sam was gabbling in his haste to seek help.
"No need Sam, she's right over there." Al retorted instantly, shining a light from his hand link as he had once done in a Church, pinpointing the runaway's location a short distance away.
Immediately, Sam was off, stumbling over the snow to reach her.
"Careful Sam!" Al called after him; mindful of Ziggy's dreadful prediction, and the impending deadline, but Sam wasn't listening. Having spotted his quarry, Sam had got his second wind and he dashed away, calling to Becky-Lou at the top of his frozen lungs.
She heard his call and turned around, torn between her continued anger and her relief not to be alone out here. She was not yet ready to confess the latter, however.
"GO AWAY B-J" she yelled even louder than he had - though by now he was right next to her - and stamping her foot again. "LEAVE ME ALONE!"
"No Sam!" Al was yelling too, all too aware that he was the only one safe to do so.
Sam ignored her request, and hurriedly helped her into her jacket, fastening the front against the cold despite her attempts to fight him off.
"SAM! Will you listen to me a minute?" Al shouted desperately, trying to make himself heard above the noise of Becky's renewed tirade, "You have to tell her to be quiet, Sam! She's gonna start an…."
Too late - the warning came too late.
As Al spoke the words, the echoes of her yells split and loosened the weakened layer of sugar snow beneath the recent heavy fall, thus shifting the top layer from its resting place, causing huge slabs to break away from somewhere way above them and slide downhill. An ominous rumble reached their ears …
"…AVALANCHE!" Al finished, somewhat redundantly, as Sam - picking up on clues both natural and holographic - reached out and grabbed Becky-Lou by the arm, ducked his head under her shoulder to hoist her into a fireman's lift and began to run with her back down the mountain as fast as his weary legs could carry him.
Becky-Lou, as yet ignorant of the reason for Bobby-Joe's sudden action, pounded on his back and protested loudly in his ear –
"Put… me… down!" each word accompanied by a sharp blow with her fist to his kidneys, while her legs continued her protest, kicking as if running away from him, feet flying in the air, striking him in the groin and all but felling him in their vehemence. Sam winced, and hitched her up higher to lessen the impact of her blows. The shift in equilibrium nearly toppled them both over backward, and Sam found himself slipping and stumbling in the snow, fighting to maintain his forward momentum. He gripped her tightly around the back of the knees, and begged her to trust him.
Becky-Lou raised her head to complain again, and in so doing looked back over his shoulder whereupon she shrieked in terror. The pitch-black night seemed to illuminate suddenly as huge chunks of brilliant white snow began careering down the slope toward them, descending upon them in a cloud of billowing powder, awesome in its power and speed. Sam ploughed onward, exhorting her in a rough whisper to make as little noise as possible lest they dislodge more slabs.
"You can't outrun it Sam! Head for the trees!" advised Al, leading off in the suggested direction and shining his hand-link for Sam to follow.
"The weather conditions have resulted in the soft slab avalanche pulverizing into a powder avalanche." Ziggy informed, as if she were giving a lecture to the meteorological society. "This type of avalanche is normally accompanied by an intense shock-wave, can travel at speeds of up to 45 meters per second - or 162kph - and carries with it a high risk of suffocation by anyone overtaken by it. Dr. Beckett's best defense is to grab and hug a tree."
Al relayed this last information to Sam, minus the irrelevant technical details.
Sam nodded to signify that he had heard and understood, and scrambled the last few feet to the tree line, still hefting the now compliant Becky-Lou on his shoulder.
It was with some relief that he lowered her, having finally reached his destination. She may have been slight of frame, but the effort had tired him nonetheless. He put her down as close as he could get her to the first aspen tree he came upon, and in one move turned her to face it.
"Hold tight!" he instructed, having to raise his voice more than he was comfortable with to make himself heard above the roar of the snowy tidal wave that was hurtling ever nearer.
Trusting in her dreamboat, Becky-Lou did as she was bid, and clasped her hands around the trunk of the tree, which she could just manage to girdle. Sam positioned himself directly behind her to protect her from the chilly blast, and encircled the tree with his own arms just below hers.
"Keep your head down." Sam advised, bracing himself for the impending impact.
Though it was indeed imminent, Sam would have done better to take a few precious extra seconds to choose a heftier tree a little deeper into the woods. As it was, the preceding shock wave Ziggy had mentioned but Al had failed to warn about, hit them with an intensity they would not have believed, rocking their anchor alarmingly and all but uprooting it.
Becky-Lou panicked and let go of the wildly swaying tree, her hands flying behind her and her body following the impetus of her limbs. The shock of yet another slap in the face, coupled with the pressure of her torso slamming against his were enough to prize Sam's own hands from the lifeline he had been clinging to, and together their two bodies were flung backward to the ground, Becky-Lou on top of Sam - the wind knocked out of both of them.
"Sam!" cried Al in alarm. Then, seeing the avalanche was descending ever nearer, he switched into autopilot, and - hitting his hand link - sought instant advice on how best to retrieve the situation.
"Roll Sam!" Al bent close to his fallen comrade and gesticulated wildly to make his meaning and the direction clear.
Sam reacted instinctively, grabbing Becky-Lou round the waist to keep them from being separated, and rolling in the direction indicated.
Thus the two went tumbling helter-skelter down the slope, Sam barely in control of steering them along their desperate flight path, until Al drew his attention to an outcropping they were about to slide over.
"It's just a short drop at the end, Sam," Al informed him, "then you'll have to reverse sharply and get into the hollow before the snow overtakes you. I'll warn you when, but you'll only get one chance…"
Sam was too busy to reply, or even nod this time, but Al knew he understood. In any case, there was no more time for further discussion, as their destination was upon them.
"Here we go, Sam, drop and roll – NOW!"
Gravity took care of the drop without any assistance from Sam or Becky-Lou. As soon as they hit the ground, Sam altered course as instructed, and they rolled back along the lower level, into a small natural cavern.
Even before their inward momentum had ceased, the tumultuous snow-chute cascaded over the precipice down which they themselves had plummeted a mere moment ago, and continued on its inexorable way down the mountain, leaving behind enough of itself to effectively seal them in.