Lakpa and Sonam set up camp at the edge of Gulpathar. Everyone seemed to take it as an opportunity to withdraw. It occurred to Trager that a trek might have physical exposure, but its social structure was claustrophobic. He wrote in his notebook, outlining an expedition to the Sonjal peaks. Harry took photographs. Sundown seemed to be meditating atop the climbing slab. Leslie slept in, and when she emerged, chose to have her tea with Lakpa at the cook tent. Pratima disappeared into the village. She emerged at lunch with his mended climbing pants. Trager had not known they were gone.
“Chandra Lal’s mother is taking your prescription,” she said. Trager could only imagine what new songs the men of Gulpathar would come up with to rival those of Lunwali.
In the morning Lakpa and Sonam served early and pulled the tents down around the trekkers before they could finish their coffee.
They stopped for lunch in a soggy meadow that murmured with meltwater streams. Goats, loosely supervised by a couple of young boys, mingled with the grazing pack ponies. Trager left the lunch tarp, and climbed up the meadow a short ways to examine the Sonjal peaks from a new angle. Although the sky was only lightly streaked with clouds, the features of the cliffs and glaciers were indistinct through the midday haze. Lakpa Tsering brought Trager’s tea up to him.
“Pony-wallah is strike this night,” the sirdar said.
“What makes you think that?” Trager asked.
“Last chance. Tomorrow we are go over big pass, Sonjal La, back to Kashmir. Many ponies in Kashmir, no problem to get more. He is want to strike before at Doda, but you are in Gulpathar with money. I think he is strike here, but too close by Gulpathar. Gulpatharis are come for porter work.”
“So by going to the wrong village, I put off a strike for two days?"
“Yes, sahib. But tonight is good for strike. I think we are paying some money.”
“Then let’s settle it right now, if you know what the guy wants.”
Lakpa rocked his head from side to side. “No, no, sahib. It is take much talk. We are coming very late to camp. Better to have strike in camp, after dinner.”
How civilized, Trager thought. This was the part of trekking he did not understand, and he let Lakpa have his way. He concentrated instead on the mountaineering problem of the snow- filled gullies that streaked the rocky slope ahead. Ignoring dark looks from the pony-wallah, he and Sonam unpacked the ice axes.
“Remember our practice on the last pass,” he said as he handed them out. “No more glissades, Pratima.”
Harry said, “You run on ahead, Les. I'm going to take it a little slower and shoot some film.” He had tried to keep up with his wife in the morning, talking constantly like a new suitor. But Leslie had remained in a foul mood. Harry had arrived at the lunch site exhausted.
“Anyone else want to walk with me?” Leslie asked.
Trager was surprised to hear Lakpa say, “Yes, memsahib. We go find route together.”
Lakpa had headed off an embarrassing silence. Trager could not have risen to the occasion.
The ponies left next, then Harry. “I have to get a head start on you kids,” he said. He was smiling, but he staggered a little getting to his feet.
“Do you mind if I go first?” Pratima said. She took off across the slope at a quick pace.
“Take it easy!” Trager called. “We're pushing twelve thousand feet.”
“She’s trying to ditch us, man,” Sundown said. “We're supposed to talk. You're supposed to tell me to go make everything right with Kamala.”
“Why would she think I can do what she can't?” Trager asked.
“Must be something you said in the village. Lakpa said the guys back there thought you two were married.”
“Maybe so, but not because of anything I did.”
Trager took a last look around the lunch site to check for dropped articles, then picked up his own pack. Sundown was still waiting for him.
“Too bad you're not Pratima’s guy, you know?” he said. “If she had stayed in California, right now she'd probably be at Berkeley, moved in with someone, and when she came to visit, me and Kamala would get to worry about where they’d sleep. Regular old American family. I could dig it, a lot more than the angry little virgin I've got now.”
The trail climbed slowly, snaking around the contours of the hill. On the ridges, Trager would catch a glimpse of one or more members of the party moving through heather. In the snowy gullies he could just see their tracks kicked into the crust. He and Sundown caught up to Harry within the first mile.
“Go ahead and pass him,” Trager said. “I'm going to stay at the end today to make sure no one gets left behind.”
“No problem,” Sundown said. “You might need help.” He stopped and let Harry get ahead again. “You know, I should have taken the guys from the head office on this trek. Would have done them as much good as it did me and Pratima.”
“Which wasn't much, it looks like.”
“Not your fault,” Sundown said. “Things just happen to me that way.”
“You think so?” Trager asked. “What about your computers? What about Pratima? Did those things just happen to you?"
“Well, yeah,” said Sundown. “They did. It’s like the draft lottery they had during Vietnam. I always drew the right number. In high school the guys all had hairdos and loafers, and I looked . . . like I do. I was the only member of the computer club. And then by the time I'm in college the dudes with the duck-ass hair are wearing beads and sandals, and we're all trying to get into the same computer classes. And Kamala. She was a girl in my grad seminar. And we just started hanging out, and then we had Pratima, and ended up married. Her family was pissed, but it was okay because I was the right class. Professor and all. Kamala quit school to take care of Pratima, and then I sold the first Synergism program. And then the whole thing went to hell.”
“You're talking about Kamala?”
“That, too. But I was talking about computers. I got in on the ground floor, which means the programs I did were the first to be obsolete. I got some guys to put up money, but then they started telling me what to do. The same crap that Leslie’s been giving you. ‘We paid for it, so this is the way it’s going to be.’ They're the ones who wanted to get into hardware. Harry bought one of our machines. Ask him how they worked out.”
“I heard,” Trager said. “But if things are as bad as all that, how come you're flying all over India?"
“The money people are trying to save their asses by sticking it to the Third World. We set up this office in Delhi, and I got sent over to unload whatever I could.”
“Modems,” Trager said.
“Right. And not much else. The rest of the Third World’s already been here, with Korean electronics that are better than ours. Synergism is history, man.”
“And you just spent four thousand dollars on a trek?"
“Shit, that’s nothing!” Sundown said. “The guys who own me can piss that away in hours with their fuck-ups, and have a lot less to show for it.”
He walked a short distance further, and then stopped. “When I came on this trek, I guess I thought I was going to go back in time. I wanted to see what I had before things got strange. I took a little action, and it didn't work out. Like I said, it happens or it doesn't. That’s my karma.”
“For what it’s worth,” Trager said. “Our friend Vasant Bagchee gave me a little lecture on karma. He said it means duty, not fate.”
“I think he was trying to say, if it’s meant to be, you'll make it happen. And if you don't make it happen, no one else will.”
“Uh, huh. You sure this is Bagchee talking, and not my kid yesterday?”
“No. All we talked about was how I got along with my parents, and her trouble in school.”
“She didn't say. Just that it was the reason Kamala took her to India.”
“She’s just making that up. Take the blame, so everyone else will have to work to make you feel better. Kamala left because I fucked up, and I bet she knows it.”
Trager waited for Sundown to go on, but as they rounded a corner, they came on the entire trek gathered at the edge of a steep snowfield. Leslie was already across, leaning jauntily on the shaft of her ice axe. Lakpa stood by her, with three of the ponies. Sonam and the pony driver were each leading another animal across the gulley. Harry sat on his pack at the near edge of the snow next to Pratima, who was holding the last pony.
“The pony-wallah is worried about his horses,” Pratima said.
Trager was beginning to wonder about that himself. He looked up at the Sonjal La. Viewing the rock head on, Trager could see no way up that would not require technical climbing. He wanted to ask Lakpa more about the route before one of the clients raised the question.
He pulled the ice axe from where he had slipped it between his shoulder straps. “I'll take him across,” he said, and took the halter from Pratima’s hand.
“I didn't know you worked with horses,” she said.
“Neither did I,” Trager said.
He tugged on the halter and the pony started to walk, pausing only a moment at the edge of the snow. Trager was surprised at how firm the snow was. Even where the crust had been broken by the other ponies, he had to kick his boots in to get firm footing. And when the pony started to slide, he was helpless to stop it. The hind legs went first, and the animal almost tipped over with its load. Trager was spun around on his steps. As his feet shot out from under him, he dropped the lead rope and grabbed his ice axe. He arrested several yards down from the track. For a long moment he lay in the snow, waiting for the pony to crush him. When he looked up, the horse was still on its feet, frozen in its stance, eyes bulging with fear. Lakpa and the pony driver were scrambling across the snow toward it. With one below and one above supporting the load, they guided it back to the track. Lakpa let the pony-wallah take the animal.
Pratima and Sundown traversed by, moving carefully with their ice axes. “Why did you do that?” Pratima asked Trager. “Do you think because you're the leader you automatically know about horses?"
“No, I automatically thought I should help,” Trager said. “And I know a lot more about horses than I did ten minutes ago.”
He was grateful for a problem that was more familiar. Harry was having trouble. He leaned into the slope too far, causing a foot to skid out from under him every other step. Trager had him wait while he kicked steps all the way across the snow. Sundown waited at the other side, and the three men sat down together.
“That damned porter of yours sets a fast pace,” Harry said. “I hope Leslie doesn't burn out trying to keep up with him.”
“Or the other way around,” Trager said. “Was she this fast in Nepal?"
“Oh, yeah. She never has any problem keeping up. Let’s go.”
Harry heaved himself to his feet, and started off on the path again in a tired man’s swaying, flatfooted walk. He did not bother to see if the other two were following.
After he rounded the first bend, Trager said, “Thanks for waiting.”
“No problem,” Sundown said. “So, you want to hear it? The reason why Pratima came to India?“
“Sure,” Trager said. “We're in no hurry.”
“I was teaching at Santa Cruz,” Sundown said. “Just one seminar. And there was this strange chick in the class. ’Tima was already thirteen or fourteen, but this kid dressed just like in the sixties. Sandals, big long dress. She stayed after sometimes, and we’d talk. She began to lay this trip on me about how she’s born out of time, and how we're kindred spirits.”
“I'm getting the picture,” Trager said. “You got it on with her.”
“It was just like everything else. I was in the right place at the right time. One day in my office she tells me she wants to share her being. Something like that. She stands there and pulls that big dress off over her head, right there in the Faculty Office Building.”
“How long did you see this lady before Kamala found out?"
“Two or three minutes.”
“She walked in? Just like that?"
“Wasn't any surprise,” Sundown said. “She always came to pick me up after seminar. She had Pratima waiting in the car. And when she saw what was going on, she just walked out and went to India.”
“Wait a minute,” Trager said. “Come on. You're leaving a lot out. Didn't you tell her what the situation was?"
“Tried for a couple of weeks. She didn't believe me.”
“But you had to make her believe you! This kind of thing can't be so unusual. And nothing happened! Didn't you tell her that?”
“Sure,” Sundown said. “I lied.”
“You mean, after Kamala left, you stayed there? And did it?"
Sundown chopped for a minute at a clod kicked up by the horses. “It’s not like I really wanted that girl or anything. And I never saw her again. She dropped out the next week. She came my way, like everything else—work, wife, kid—and I figured it was something else that would work out. Always in the right place at the right time, you know? So when she dropped that dress, I just thought, hey, this must be the place.”
The camping ground was a roughly circular ledge about 200 feet in diameter that capped a buttress on the west side of the valley. On either side of the ledge the mountainside was covered in snow, but the protruding ground was melted clear, an oasis of dry rock, heather and short grass.
Trager, Sundown, and Harry arrived together. The tents were up, the ponies were hobbled, and Sonam had tea brewing. Pratima sat on a rock next to the stove, talking with the cook.
She got to her feet as Trager approached. “Gulam Mohammed is quitting,” she announced.
“The pony man! You don’t even know his name, do you?"
“No, I don't,” Trager admitted. “I've never even spoken to him.”
“Well you'd better start. Sonam says he’s ready to go down tonight. Lakpa’s talking to him now.”
Trager looked over at the hobbled ponies. The sirdar and Gulam faced each other, the Kashmiri waving his hands. Lakpa saw Trager, and motioned him to come. The pony man’s burning dark eyes followed him every step of his approach.
“Pony-wallah say, this pass is too steep,” Lakpa told Trager. “Too much snow. Ponies not go.”
“They didn't have any problem on the last pass.”
“No, sahib, ponies are have some trouble on Janavar Gali. You were not there. Much snow this year. Sahib, we must make him go some way higher, then see. I think we pay some money just for this, but he says no.”
“All right,” Trager said. “Tell him to go down, then.”
“Sahib! Very difficult, go this pass with no ponies, no porters. Don't pay off this man to go now.”
“I didn't say anything about paying him off. If he wants any money at all, he goes on. If he strands us, he goes back without a rupee, and he can plead his case to someone in Kawapatri.”
Lakpa looked doubtfully at Trager, and then translated.
Gulam clenched his fists and braced his feet as if he were going to hit Trager. He cried out, and waved his hand toward the sky.
“How did he take that?” Trager asked.
“He say, God is strike us dead on the pass. For stealing from him.”
“If he’s not going to be with us, he has nothing to say about tomorrow, and neither do I.”
The pony-wallah did not wait for translation, but ranted on, shaking his fist at Trager.
“On the other hand, if he wants to talk rupees, I could have a lot to say right now.”
At the word ‘rupees,'’ the Kashmiri stopped, and looked sharply at him.
“Tell Gulam Mohammed that if his ponies really cannot make it over the pass, I'll pay him and let him go back. But I'll only pay for the days he has worked.”
“Achcha, yes, sahib,” Lakpa said. The sirdar looked relieved at the turn of the dialog.
Gulam did not. He looked up to heaven again, and shouted on for several minutes. But he did not leave. They were still trading pronouncements when Sonam announced that soup was ready. Trager and Lakpa went to the red tarp, and the pony man tended his own small fire of scavenged Gulpathar firewood at the opposite corner of the meadow.
“How're we doing?” Sundown asked.
“We'll either be lighter tomorrow by several hundred rupees,” said Trager, “or we'll each be heavier by a couple of duffel bags.”
As Sonam was serving noodles and tinned meat, Lakpa rose from his place near the stoves and walked uphill with a plastic water bottle to the stream that drained the snowfield above the meadow. He chose a path that took him within speaking distance of the pony-wallah’s tarp. When he returned, he announced, “Pony-wallah say, you pay full whole trek now, he is go up tomorrow.”
Leslie gave a snort. "Tell him to kiss my ass!"
Lakpa looked pained. “What do we do now?” Trager asked.
“We go talk to this man about money. We are talk some time, pay some money, but ponies carry bags tomorrow. This is good work, but . . . sahib, I do this talking now.”
It still took a long time. When Trager left the red tarp, the light was going orange on the peaks. By the time he and Lakpa walked back from the pony-wallah’s scrub fire, the sky was indigo, full of snapping bright stars.
“So we got away with half-pay tomorrow after the loads are packed. Five hundred twenty-five rupees. Not too bad. And the weather has cleared.”
The sirdar shifted on his feet. “Maybe, sahib. Maybe some storm tomorrow.” He paused a moment. “Things are maybe difficult on Sonjal La. I think Harry sahib is going back.”
“Uh-oh. I know who you've been talking to. Listen, we're this close, there’s no way Harry won't make it. We'll carry him over to Kashmir on one of the ponies if we have to. Whatever Leslie says.”
“Yes, sahib. But maybe difficult. Good night, sahib.”
Trager heard the sirdar’s footsteps crunching on frosted grass as he moved away. Lakpa’s diffidence was a little unnerving, and Trager looked back to the clear gleam of the stars for reassurance. They were darkest right over head, fading out into the last faint glow to the west, and into a new light in the east. The moon. Trager had not noticed the moon since leaving Oregon. It had been hidden behind clouds, or Trager had been too deep in the valleys to watch it rise. From the glow on the peaks above the pass, Trager guessed it was nearly full. He waited in the cold, hoping the moon would clear the ridge. The stream from the snowfield froze still, and Trager felt the tips of his ears go numb. When he began to shiver, he gave up. He started for bed, but quickly realized he had not watched the camp being laid out, and did not know which of the four sleeping tents was his. He scuffed around until he hit the corner of the red tarp, and found his pack where he had left it in the afternoon. His failing flashlight would not stay lit for more than a few seconds, but he caught a glimpse of the tents before it went out.
Trying to walk a straight line toward the nearest tent, Trager groped forward until his hand hit the cold nylon. The door was zipped. He knelt, found the zipper pull, and slowly drew it up. A wave of deodorant and cologne swept over him.
The Macintoshes. He started to close the zipper when the tab was pulled from his hand, and the door flap fell open in his lap.
“It’s all right,” Leslie whispered. “He’s asleep. He took a Valium.”
A warm hand closed on Trager’s wrist and pulled him in. with only his knees for support, Trager toppled face first into the folds of Leslie’s sleeping bag.
“Sh! Not here!” Leslie said. “I'll get my things.”
But she held him a moment longer. “God, you're fingers are cold!” she said.
I'm not the one who suggested you put them between your legs, Trager thought. She was trying to stroke him, but Trager realized she had her hand around the barrel of the flashlight in his knickers. Unable to help himself, Trager began to laugh. “Hush!” Leslie said, and at the same instant, white light exploded in his eyes.
“You BITCH!” Harry’s voice cracked in Trager’s ears as a powerful electric torch illuminated the tent.
Trager pulled his hand from Leslie’s crotch, and shuffled backwards on his knees.
“Yes! Crawl out of here you bastard!” Harry screamed. “You piece of crap!” He swung at Trager, cuffing him lightly on the ear.
“Harry, come on! I just came to the wrong tent.”
“You bet your sweet ass you came to the wrong tent!"
Harry scrambled out after Trager, pushing him as he got to his feet. They danced around each other in the oblique light of the torch in the tent, Trager in his climbing clothes looking almost as fat as Harry in long underwear.
“Harry, will you just listen?” Trager pleaded.
“You son of a bitch! You give me all this crap about seeing me through the trek. Suck up to me about my photography. But it’s the same old thing they all want. My wife’s ass!"
“Harry, for God’s sake!” Leslie shouted. “You don't understand.” She was leaning out the door with her pajama tops pressed to her chest.
“Oh yeah? How do you misunderstand this?” He ripped the pajama tops out of Leslie’s hands. “Look at the bitch! Just look at her! Same thing as in Nepal! Bitch, bitch, bitch! Fuck, fuck, fuck!"
“You bastard!” she yelled, and grabbed the shirt back. Trager had a vivid image of the two of them in their tug of war, Harry’s overhanging paunch and Leslie’s pendulous breasts swaying in rhythm with their pulls. Four arms suddenly appeared out of the darkness behind Harry, and pulled him away from his wife. Harry sagged, gasping in the thin air, with Sonam’s and Lakpa’s wide-eyed faces staring on either side of him. Leslie dove back into the tent, as Harry began to cry.
“You can have her, you shit,” he sobbed. “Go ahead. Just stay there in the sack with her. She’s not sleeping with me.”
“Yes, she is,” said Trager quietly, stepping up to him. “I don't know what happened in Nepal, but what happened tonight is that I couldn't find my tent. My flashlight doesn't work.”
“Sure!” Harry cried. “Here’s what I think of your flashlight!” He swung one pudgy leg up kick Trager in the groin. He was not flexible enough to deliver a very powerful blow, and most if the impact was taken by the barrel of the torch. But the assault staggered Trager, and caused the cook and sirdar to wrestle Harry to the ground.
Leslie stuck her head out again. “You can't talk to me the way you did! I'm not sleeping with you, either!"
The camp was up. Sundown stood with his sleeping bag wrapped around him, looking like an old medicine man. Pratima, wearing baggy pajamas, stood next to him with long hair cascading over her shoulders. Trager assumed that out in the dark, Gulam Mohammed’s dark eyes were watching it all.
Harry muttered from the ground, “I'll sleep in the cook tent before I'll sleep with that bitch.”
“That’s cool,” Sundown said. “Lakpa, get him off the ground and help him move his stuff, okay? Ansel, go to bed.”
“I don't understand,” said Pratima. “What’s going on here?"
“We'll all talk about it in the morning,” said Sundown.
Harry broke free from Sonam. “Damn right we will, and for a long time afterward. Trager, I'm going to nail your butt to the wall! And your whole goddamned company. This trip is a joke! But let me tell you, no one’s going to be laughing when I'm done.”
“Hey, man, will you go to bed?” Sundown said.
Everyone obeyed, even Trager. He felt no urge to command and no power to do so. Anything he might say would seem like an incriminating defense of some crime that he had not committed. He let Sundown give the orders. After all, Pratima’s father had been preparing to explain something like this for years.
His bag was limp and thin from being packed, and the nylon shell was clammy with frost. Trager clenched his eyes and fists against the cold, and against the images of the past five minutes. When he opened them, he was surprised that he could see inside the sleeping bag. Pulling up the skirt of his parka, he saw his flashlight, stirred to life by Harry’s kick, burning steadily in his pants.