Tree Line - Chapter One

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Chapter One

Dave Boyles unzipped the wide, half-moon flap of his tent, its zipper releasing a long moan as rows of nylon teeth separated for the first time that day, catching in a few places that used to run clean and smooth, used to be silent.

The air outside of his tent was cold. The air was always cold, but it felt hard that morning too, like the chill had been powerful enough to slow individual molecules to a standstill. It felt like the air itself was about to freeze in long, brittle, milky sheets of blown-glass ice, stretched and thin.

He scooted forward from his seated position inside of the tent, and pushed his feet through the open flap. Each foot was wrapped in several layers of cotton and wool, dirty and sagging, comically oversized, but still always chilled, his feet always on the verge of being numb. Reaching over, Dave grabbed his pair of worn, heavy boots from their usual place just inside of his tent and dropped them onto the rocks outside. As he started the process of getting his feet inside of them, working the stiff and stained laces, he felt movement behind him, weight shifting on the stacks of blankets that made up the floor of his tent, hearing a soft jangle like keys. Then, Dave felt the weight move towards him, bumping hard into his shoulder as it passed, enough to cause one of his boots to slip free from his lax grip as the thing inside of his tent pushed its way outside.

"Gus," Dave growled, reaching for his dropped boot, his single word enough to cause the dog to turn his black eyes back, watching for more, waiting for a command to accompany the sound of his name. When it didn't come, the dog gave up, turning back to sniff at the cold air while moving away from the tent at a speed that didn't seem rushed, as lumbering and slow as the morning itself.

It was just after 9:00 in the morning, the sun steadily climbing higher into the sky, but its light was dim and muted. As Dave climbed to his feet, his boots untied but still snug with so many layers of socks, he followed the path that Gus had already traced in the dirt and rocks. He watched the path in front of him as he walked, putting his feet into spots carefully, purposefully, then he lifted his eyes to see the clouds that were coming in just over the horizon to the west, so low that they obscured the tops of the peaks they passed over. The clouds were grey and thick, dense and heavy with what would be the first snow of the season. They moved in fast, winding up their moisture, coiling and readying it like a fastball that it was about to hurl across the jagged peaks of the Rocky Mountains directly at them. Dave could see it there, a storm readying itself, the clouds bulging and hardening like a face that stared back at him, a face that had a glint in its eye, a look like it meant to do harm.

Ahead, Gus stopped trotting and turned his gaze back at Dave again, blank eyes giving no hints of what the animal might be thinking. Maybe the dog saw the same clouds that Dave did and was waiting for a comment from the human who shared his tent with him. Maybe the dog was silently imploring the human to lift his eyes to the sky, to see what he did, so that they could share that moment, that flicker of recognition in what the weather had in store for them. Maybe the animal just wanted a reassuring pat on the shoulder, a whispered affirmation that everything would still be fine, that there was nothing to worry about.

"Go on," Dave announced instead, gesturing away from the camp with a lazy arm, swatting at the wind, a gesture that got the dog moving again. "Let's get this done and get back inside."

The dog turned away from his master, paused as it looked over the ground before them, and then ambled ahead, nimble feet moving between large, mottled rocks as he went, zigzagging over ground that looked less like the happenstance of nature and more like it had been laid out like an obstacle course. There was nothing to be found in the dirt, but Gus searched it with his nose anyway, finding only wind-blasted rock and a few patches of brittle yellowed grasses and parched moss. It could be the surface of Mars, as dry and barren as everything was above 11,000 feet, and as Dave walked slowly over the field of stubborn rock, he reflected that his situation didn't feel much different than being lost on some distant, unforgiving planet. The only thing that he thought might be different was the wind: constant, brutal, and cruel. Mars didn't have wind like this. There was barely enough air there to blow out a candle, but here the wind blasted against everything, all rage and bravado, a tantrum that never quelled, never relented.

Ahead, Gus took interest in a small gap between a pair of rocks that looked no different than any of the others, sniffing intently, then circling it carefully as he continued smelling for something, his tail wagging back and forth slowly, absent-mindedly. When Gus positioned himself over the spot, starting to squat, Dave yelled out at him, his words strong enough to cut through the steady moan of blowing mountain air, "Go to your spot!"

Looking sheepishly back at him, Gus lifted himself and trotted off again, heading towards a familiar area, one that the dog could find just by smell alone. There was nothing special about the area, just another spot on a field of battered, wind-polished stone, but it was where he was allowed to relieve himself, the same spot the humans also visited two hundred yards from camp.

Dave followed the dog, his nose not nearly as refined or precise as Gus' senses, but he got a whiff of it himself as he drew closer, a scent that was both unmistakable and unremarkable in equal measure. The stench didn't matter. The whole area would freeze soon, buried under feet of snow, everything waiting for a thaw that wouldn't come for at least eight months, maybe longer.

When both Gus and Dave had finished, turning back toward the camp, the first flakes of snow had already started to fall, spilling out from the dark grey clouds above them to stick to their hair, their shoulders, to crowd their eyelashes. Each frozen drop of water was small, but it came down with a growing speed, racing down with the same brashness that Dave saw in the face of the storm, that same wicked glint. It was obvious that this would be the start of something difficult, a time that would be hard and unforgiving. It didn't matter that his camp had already had so many other days of struggle. Dave was sure that what they had ahead of them would be cruel.

Disgusted, Dave spit at the wind, a useless expression of defiance at what he foresaw in that harsh, cold air. He squinted into the stinging snow, seeing the clouds go from grey to something darker, so he pushed his hands into his pockets and increased his pace back to his tent. Gus walked beside him, sniffing at the air, casting more nervous glances at Dave, his ears perked as he listened to the growing, growling wind.

As Dave approached his tent, he eyed the other, fragile nylon structures that made up their settlement, all of them arranged within the cramped, crumbled foundation of an old restaurant that had burned down decades before any of them had even been born. They called themselves Camp Corona, the camp at the top of the world, but a lot of them also used the name Camp Gopher. Most of their tents were positioned in shallow holes that they had dug between the long tracts of the restaurant's crumbling stone foundation, trying to get some protection from the ceaseless winds, and some shelter from the relentless lightning strikes that blasted down on the mountain underneath their feet.

Getting back to his tent, Dave unzipped his door again, turning around so he could back himself into his flimsy home, working to remove his boots outside. Once he had a chance to knock them together, shaking loose whatever dirt or rocks clung to the deep ruts in his thick, rubber soles, he pulled them inside, pausing before he zipped closed his door.

"Well, come on," he said, softly. The dog flashed Dave a quick look, then turned his head away, looking at the jagged horizon. "Gus, come on. You don't want to be stuck out here and I'm not letting a wet dog into my tent."

Gus gave Dave a look like he understood what the man had said, but still the dog didn't budge.

"Come on," Dave said again, softer this time, shivering against the wind and the thickening snow that blew in through his tent's door. Gus eyed him again, looking like he was considering his choices, then the dog finally complied, darting into the tent, so Dave could pull closed the thin, crosshatched nylon door, the fabric jerking and vibrating under the force of the wind while he struggled with its zipper.

The inside of Dave's tent was a cramped space, filled with soft, unbalanced piles of clothes and a couple of boxes jammed full of whatever supplies he had managed to scavenge from the lower altitudes. Rummaging through one of the piles near the tent's door, every piece of cloth he touched already sharp with the smell of exertion, long days, and limited soap, Dave eventually found a knitted hat that he pulled over his curly, shoulder length hair. He shivered as he pulled the hat onto his head, the large man trying to ignore the cold, trying to deny the uncontrolled jerk of sensation that moved through him, but he could already feel it settling in through his tent's walls and into his bones.

Leaning over, he picked up a book from another pile. It was a tattered paperback, its cover faded and torn, its binding useless and forgetful, leaving pages in its wake like flakes of dandruff. The book smelled yellow and dusty, a perfume of paper and glue that wasn't exactly pleasant, but still managed to be comforting.

Dave had read the book before, maybe a dozen times, but he laid back on his sleeping bag and the blankets that made up his tent's floor, and turned to the first chapter to start again. Standing no more than a foot away in the cramped place, Gus looked at Dave until the red-haired man made eye contact with him and patted on his chest. Signaling for the dog to curl up with him, which Gus immediately did, both man and dog shifted their weight, getting comfortable, settling in. Then, with the dog's chin resting on his chest, Dave lowered his eyes onto the ink that would take him out of the cold, out of his tent, and out of the world that had crumbled around him.

He started to read, out loud, maybe for Gus, maybe just for himself: "On the 24th of February, 1815, the look-out at Notre-Dame de la Garde signaled the three-master, the Pharaon from Smyrna, Trieste, and Naples."

Gus lifted his muzzle, looked at Dave for a moment, then lowered his jaw back down onto the man's chest again, closing his eyes as Dave continued to read. The dog let out a grunt, something almost like a moan, squeezing his closed eyes and folding his thick, expressive brow. His ears twitched occasionally as the man continued to tell him a story he already knew, the wind shaking the walls of the tent around them.

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