He took slow, careful steps, the stones on the bed shifting under his weight and tumbling slowly downriver.
Between each step, he braced himself, leaning into the force of the water.
Midway across, it rose to his chest.
The current swept him off his feet.
Driving Ethan downstream.
In the near darkness, he had no idea what boulders jutted out of the channel, just knew that slamming into one could kill him.
He struggled across the current using a hard, deliberate sidestroke.
His arms worked fine, but with his waterlogged boots he couldn’t kick with any efficiency or power.
Their weight pulled him under more than they propelled him.
After a frenzied minute, his muscles on the brink of mutiny, he felt the soles of his boots graze the bottom.
Standing, he leaned into the current, the water level dropping back to his waist.
A dozen more steps brought it down to his knees, and then he jogged the rest of the way out of the river, collapsing on the bank.
Rolled onto his side, breathless, spent, shivering.
He stared back across the channel.
Everywhere, new beams of light appeared.
He could hear people shouting, thought it was possible they were calling his name, but from this distance, the crushing noise of the whitewater destroyed any chance of hearing them distinctly.
Ethan wanted to move, knew he had to, but he couldn’t make himself scramble back onto his feet. Just needed another minute to lie there and breathe.
There were more lights on the opposite shore now than he could count, the highest concentration thirty yards upriver at his point of entry, but more and more, people seemed to be venturing north and south of where he’d gone in, light beams sweeping out over the current in a dozen places.
He rolled over onto his knees.
Hands shaking with cold like he’d been afflicted with palsy.
He began to crawl, fingers groping through wet sand.
Just that minute of lying motionless had stiffened his joints.
When he came to the next large rock, he reached up, got a handhold, and pulled himself onto his feet.
His boots sloshed with water.
There must have been a hundred people across the river, and still more lights appearing on the bank every second. Most beams reached only the midpoint, but a handful carried the potency to shoot all the way across to Ethan’s side, their compact tubes of light clearly visible with the rain falling through them.
Ethan scrambled away from the water, hoping to put more distance between himself and the lights, but after ten feet, he reached a sheer wall of rock.
He moved alongside it as the voices of several hundred people overpowered the crush of whitewater.
A light struck the cliff ten feet ahead.
Ethan ducked behind a boulder and peeked around the side as the beam traversed the cliff behind him.
A waterfall of light poured down from the shore into the current. From where Ethan crouched, he saw a few people wading knee-deep in the river, searching, but no one was attempting to swim across.
He’d started to step out from behind the boulder when a voice, amplified through a megaphone, blared across the river.
“Ethan, come back to us, and all will be forgiven.”
He’d have known it anywhere—the deep, guttural boom of Sheriff Pope’s voice, ricocheting off the cliffs, back into the pine forest behind the crowd.
“You don’t know what you’re doing.”
Actually, I know exactly what I’m doing.
With no lights striking the rock anywhere in his general vicinity, Ethan struggled back onto his feet, stumbling south beside the cliff.
“If you come back, we won’t hurt you.”
Yeah. Be right over.
“You have my word on that.”
Ethan wished he had a bullhorn of his own.
Other voices were shouting his name across the river.
“You don’t understand what you’re doing!”
Pope continued to call out to him as well, but Ethan pushed on into pitch-black rain.
The farther he moved away from the crowd, the more impossible it became to see.
Ethan limping now in slow, shuffling steps, his only directional anchor the noise of the river on his left.
Behind—fading voices, shrinking points of light.
His body had cranked out the last available adrenaline, and he could feel a world-class crash coming on.
Total system shutdown.
But he couldn’t stop. Not yet.
The urge to curl up in the sand beside the river and sleep was almost overpowering, but those people might decide to cross.
They had lights and weapons and numbers.
He had nothing.
Too great a risk.
And so, with what little gas he had remaining in his reserve tank, he went on.
Ethan had no way of knowing how long he’d been walking alone in darkness.
His pace was such that he couldn’t have covered more than a mile. If nothing else, he felt certain of this. Every few minutes, he made himself stop and glance downstream, searching for oncoming lights, listening for footsteps crackling over rocks.
But each time he looked back, it was always the same—complete darkness—and if someone was following him, the roar of the river effectively masked all other sounds.
* * *
The rain slowed to a drizzle and then an intermittent sprinkle and then it stopped altogether.
Ethan still trudged along, traveling solely by feel, his hands grasping invisible boulders, his feet taking the smallest possible steps so that when they inevitably collided with an impediment, Ethan’s forward momentum didn’t throw him to the ground.
* * *
And then he could see.
One moment, darkness.
The next—a bulging, gibbous moon, its light shining down through a break in the clouds, the surfaces of every wet rock gleaming like they had been lacquered.
Ethan sat down on a flat-topped boulder, his legs trembling, at the end of endurance.
The width of the river had narrowed by almost half, but the current was rougher, blasting down through a rock garden in a furious spray of whitewater.
Great pines—seventy or eighty feet tall—towered over the riverbank on the other side.
He suddenly realized how thirsty he was.
Falling to his knees, he crawled to the edge of the river and dipped his face into a small pool.
The water tasted deliciously pure and sweet, but bitterly cold.