Tree Line - Chapter Twenty-Two
The skies were clear and still the next morning as the trio slowly made their way back across the frozen road that separated the condo from the empty tennis courts. They walked silently past the buried pond, and then back into the trees, retracing steps that had been filled and buried, erased by wind, snow and nature’s lack of any regard for their efforts the previous night.
With no clouds, nor any wind to speak of, the sun shown down on them with an unblinking clarity. Its harsh light reflected across the fresh snow, revealing thousands of tiny, shining gems that glittered and burned across the surface of the new white. Light assaulted their eyes from above and below, sunlight pouring down on them and bouncing up from the ground, making them squint and wince, scowling with each step.
It wasn’t just the sunlight that made their travel slow and frustrating. Each man dragged a make-shift sled behind them, a rope tied around their waists like a belt, pulling against their cargo in jerky, uneven intervals. The sleds sometimes refused to budge as they were dragged. Other times the sleds would fling themselves at the men pulling them, bashing into the backs of their legs, bouncing off calves and coiled tendons already sore from the previous day’s hike and late search through the woods.
They decided they would take turns leading, marching through the knee-deep snow in single file, theoretically cutting paths to make things easier for the men behind them, to give each man a break. It worked in theory for the first hour, but they were learning that a single man’s footfalls through the snow, even two men’s clumsy, lumbering steps, wasn’t enough to really forge much of a path. And, they were also learning that the deeper and more developed the path they carved was, the harder it was for the sleds that each man was dragging to navigate over the snow, the loads constantly toppling over in the trenches they had carved.
Pat, wheezing heavily, finally found a groove with the snowshoes he had worn down the day before, a rhythm that evaded him when the snow was thinner and less reliable. As he pushed over the deeper, glittering, newborn snow he began to realize that he wasn’t in good enough shape to sustain his labored pace for very long. He could manage two or three dozen steps, maybe fifty if he could settle into a relaxed, graceful gait, but then he’d have to stop to catch enough air in his lungs so that he could start again. He could feel it, the easy rhythm he needed, the steady swing and sway of his legs, his arms keeping pace at his sides, lumbering through the snow like that old film of Bigfoot, but then he’d lose his already thin breath and have to stop. Growing more frustrated with each clumsy halt only made that efficient gait that much harder to find again, made it that much more elusive to his tired body.
Owen just walked, step after labored step behind Pat, sinking in the snow while Pat’s snowshoes gave him a little more altitude, a little height that the younger man envied. He was completely quiet as he walked, except for his own labored breathing.
Owen had started strongly that morning, his quick nap more rejuvenating than any of them expected, but his lack of food was clearly taking its toll on him. He hadn’t eaten anything in over twenty four hours and his eyes had begun to look hollow, as empty of energy as his stomach had been empty of food.
“How is everyone doing?” Dave called out from the front of their small group. Even though they talked about taking turns leading, Dave already seemed to be in the front most of the time, cutting a path through the snow for Pat and Owen, doing most of the work. He had stopped, his feet buried up to his calves, his sled slipping slowly to the side without his constant pull, inching away from him.
“It’s hard to breathe,” Pat answered, still wheezing.
It had been his answer the last two times Dave had asked, word for word, only the pain in his voice changing. That was getting worse, that tone that signaled that his discomfort was growing.
“I know,” Dave answered.
Dave leaned over, putting his hands on his knees, pulling in heavy gasps of air through his own filtered mask. He was in better shape than the older man, but breathing was a chore for all of them. Still bent over, he turned to Pat, asking, “But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?”
“Shut up, you smart-ass,” Pat shot back. His tone was sharp, hard, then he let out a chuckle that seemed to erase whatever edges had been there.
Owen stopped walking when he caught up with Pat, stopping just as the other two men had done, and immediately he realized it was a mistake. The muscles in his legs felt like they were going to lock up having been given the chance to rest, a moment to consider their efforts, their situation. How was he going to get his legs moving again? It seemed impossible. They shook underneath him, wobbling as if the entirety of the Rocky Mountains had been gripped by an earthquake, subtle but determined.
The aspens stretched high above them, had been for the last hour, getting thinner again after having been so thick, so close, for so much of their hike. They were nearly through the massive grove, maybe just a half of a mile more to go, maybe a quarter mile to reach the evergreens, depending on how far south or east they had gone. The snow between the trees was thicker than it had been the day before, the carpet of fallen, soggy leaves buried, gone under a blanket of gleaming white. It made their travel easier in some ways and much harder in others.
“Need a break, Pat?” Dave called out.
Pat shook his head in the negative, but then answered, less confidently, “I don’t know.”
Pat tried to put his gloved fingers between his coat and the rope that tethered him to his sled. It felt like it was tightening around him, squeezing him ever so gently with each step, like a snake that was being careful with its prey so as not to alarm it.
“You okay?” Dave pressed, persisted, watching the older man wince and grimace, fighting with his rope.
“I’m just tired,” Pat answered. Then, after a pause, another pained gulp of air through his breath-moistened mask, added, “And old.”
“I’m not feeling very young right now myself,” he said, his smile visible on his face, despite the mask that covered his mouth.
How many years did Pat have on Dave? Probably as many as Dave had on Owen, an amount that felt insignificant on some days, but on other days felt huge, vast, an amount of time that became something almost generational.
Today the distance between Dave and Pat felt paper thin as they both struggled to breathe, struggled to find air at almost two miles above sea level. Their mouths were always covered while they were below the tree line, a protection from Henry, but their protective masks also choked out whatever sparse air they could find, their bodies weak from hunger and so, so thirsty.
The distance between Dave and Owen seemed much further, a gulf of years that managed to gift Owen with the strength that Dave felt lacking in his own limbs. Owen stood tall as his two elders bent over and gasped. He looked strong, more confused and tired than beaten by exertion or worn down by their hard fought steps.
Dave tried to work out the math, tried to trace their route across the mental map he carried in his head, but he knew his map wasn’t entirely reliable. They had made the trip down to Fraser so many times he knew the way, more or less, but every trip had been slightly different, twisted one way or the other based on the people he had with him, the gear they were wearing, the supplies they were carrying, or the ever changing Colorado weather. It was simple enough to cross a mountain, up one side and then down the other, strolling into the deserted ghost town that had once been a busy vacation spot, but the snow made that task more complex and their sleds made it perilous. He had to worry about slips now, falls that could send one of his friends down an otherwise easy incline, tumbling head over heels until they were stopped quick by a tree stump or a huge mountain rock, coming to a stop with an impact that could shatter bones.
He remembered Gary Barnett, a kid who was one year older than he was, who had attended the same high school Dave went to in Winter Park. Fraser was too small for its own high school, so Dave made a daily trek to the next town for his education, getting to know some of the kids that lived there. He saw them occasionally at weekend parties or during ski trips.
Gary seemed okay. He liked to laugh at other kids, but it never seemed like he was the one who made the jokes, who cut anyone else down. One weekend a group of them went on a hike, not far from where Camp Corona was, and Gary fell. The other kids said he slipped, came lose from a rock he was trying to climb, showing off for one of the girls, and broke his back.
The school showed pictures of him occasionally, at school assemblies, flashing a smile to the camera, always with a thumbs up, but in the background of each photo was his hospital bed or the handles of his wheelchair. He never came back to school, despite the smiles.
There was no mountain rescue for Dave to call on if their group got into trouble, no backboard he could roll someone onto to carry them out if someone got hurt. They were completely alone, completely isolated in a way that still seemed impossible, even after all of this time living in a world ravaged by Henry. If something happened, something terrible and unexpected, Dave would just have to deal with it.
The sleds were lighter than they looked. Maybe too light, mostly loaded down with blankets and sheets and a few extra pillows, all tied with ropes. Some of them carried clothes within their bundles, sandwiched between the flattened blankets and pillows. Dave hid some of the food they had found on his sled, cans and jars and boxes of dry pasta tucked between layers of blankets and ugly sweatshirts, even more of their stolen food filling up his backpack, weighing down on his shoulders and making them ache.
Dave didn’t want the sleds to be too heavy. He was afraid that if one of the sleds got away they’d take their owner with them, but now he was beginning to think the sleds might be too light instead; too erratic and wild when he needed them to be predictable. Given how tired they were, how weak they all felt, even as light as the sleds were they might still be heavy enough to pull any one of them to their knees. A moment of clumsiness, just a second of feeling off balance, might be enough to send any one of them in an uncontrolled tumble down the side of the mountain.
What would he do if one of them had gotten badly hurt, hurt like Gary Barnett did more than two decades ago? Would Dave take care of it? Could he? He was keenly aware of the weight of the rifle he took from the condo and the way it pulled on the muscles up and down his sore back, its black case thrown over his right shoulder, just barely held in place under his backpack’s tight straps. He could feel it, the dark, heavy bag shifting its long weight, always there, always making itself known to him.
That might have been the limits of Dave’s pragmatism. That might have been the spot where his mind could go no further. He thought about a lot of ugly things since they first set up camp, when it became clear that Fraser wasn’t safe anymore. Every time they moved their camp higher and higher up Rollins Pass he played though scenarios that he hoped would never come to pass, nightmare choices that haunted him even when they only happened in his imagination, but having to do that to a friend...
He shuddered as he straightened his spine, his backpack and the gun underneath it shifting its weight again as he stood upright. He tried to banish his dark thoughts by taking in the scenery around them. He looked up at the aspens standing straight in the snow, the distant evergreens swaying ahead of them, the cobalt blue sky that only contained a couple of wisps of white clouds, here and there, afterthoughts in a sky that had hours before been too heavy with snow to show many stars. He tried to distract himself by turning to face his fellow campers, trying to gauge how Pat and Owen were doing, barely a fourth of the way home, but the ugly thoughts stuck with him, too determined to be sent away so easily.
It would be a mercy. Dave didn’t keep in touch with Gary after high school. The two barely knew each other before the accident, but even if Gary was able to have a long, fulfilling life, that was all before Henry. Trapped in the thin air two miles above sea level, huddled in hand-dug holes above the tree line, immobile in a freezing tent with no electricity, no heat, and nothing new to read, seemed like the closest thing to Hell their precarious world had left.
The large man was determined not to think about it. He squeezed his eyes closed and mentally told those thoughts they weren’t welcome. He had more pressing matters, more important things to put his mind to in the day ahead of them.
“Owen, you doing okay, buddy?” he asked, light bouncing off the snow, streaming onto his face from all directions. Dave was sure he’d have a sunburn by tomorrow, his dry cheeks feeling hot around his face mask. He had no doubt the sun was searing a ring of red around the protected, pale skin under his mask, a pattern that everyone would laugh at back up at Corona.
Owen, in a daze, nodded, struggling to make eye contact.
“You sure?” Dave asked. He tried to sound casual as he spoke, but he could hear the concern in his own voice, clear enough that it caught Pat’s eyes.
“Yeah,” Owen said, stuttering once, then twice, before finally getting his words out, each syllable tripping over his teeth. “I’m good. I’m just a little tired.”
“Maybe we should take a few minutes,” Dave offered. He added an unconvincing chuckle, then said, “I know I could use a break.”
Pat, still bent over, his hands holding onto his knees, nodded wearily. His eyes moved from Dave to Owen, and then back up to Dave again.
“It’s like I’m always either too hot or too cold, you know?” Owen asked, unzipping his massive parka. He grabbed one of his coat’s newly freed breasts and flapped it in the cold air, becoming more himself again, more like what they all knew and expected.
Owen smiled weakly, looking relieved as the cold air rushed inside of his open coat. Then, as Dave and Pat watched, his eyes rolled upward. He stood motionless for a moment, just a second, hanging like he was suspended by ropes, then the lanky young man crumpled like his bones disappeared from inside of him, falling to the snow in a heap.
Dave watched in horror as Owen’s sled started to drift away, sliding down, back into the thicker places of the aspen grove behind them. Its rope tugged on Owen’s body as it pulled away, just a tug, then as Dave had feared, the sled pulled the young man from the spot where he collapsed, his body being dragged over the snow in awkward jerks and stops. Dave frantically tried to release himself from his own sled to chase after him, but as he struggled with his own ropes, Owen began to pick up speed.
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