The morning sky lightened later than usual because of a heavy layer of very dark clouds. The wind rattled and popped the lightweight tarp above Skylar’s hammock, but, as he had predicted to Mike, the thin rope had held both him and the shelter firmly and securely. He lay snugly warm in the chill morning air mentally composing the log entry he should make for the previous day.
He had been amazed at how far the river had carried them during the short time he and Jenna had been in the water. Walking at a slower pace because of her leg, it had taken them several hours to return to the place where they'd fallen into the river.
Due to the several mishaps, it had been agreed to call off the remaining days of hunting and reschedule the trip for the regulars. Charles had bagged his deer while the rest of the party was downstream. When Skylar compared Charles’ and John’s animals, he understood why the others would term John’s deer as ‘scrawny’.
After re-crossing the river, they’d returned to the site where they’d slept the first night on the mountain. Skylar had finally been able to see the uses of the poles Blaize had been carrying for days. They had been lashed together with canvas webbing to form a triangular sled, to which Charles' deer was secured.
This sled was fastened to drag behind Blaize, and considering how skittish he had been, Skylar was amazed at how calm he became with the sled attached. He mentally filed away the sled’s design to use it at some future time.
Skylar rose, stretching his abused muscles. His arm was still quite sore. He knew Jenna must be in more pain than himself; her wound had been more serious.
He remembered her comment on being out of pain-relievers, so he dug into his own aidkit and retrieved two small tablets. Skylar returned the kit to his pack, then removed a small paper packet from his supplies and dropped it in his shirt pocket.
As he left his shelter, the strength of the cold wind blowing down from the higher mountain hit him with full force, nearly knocking him to his knees. Leaning into the wind, he looked around to see Jenna already working on breakfast; he made his way to her side.
"How's the leg?" he asked,.
She gave him a small, brave smile, which, combined with the dark circles under her eyes gave lie to her words.
"It's fine. Working great, now. Thanks." She made to turn back to her work, but he reached out and took hold of her arm. He turned her hand palm up and placed the two tablets there. "Take these; they'll help the pain and stiffness. Did you get any sleep last night?"
Jenna shook her head and quickly swallowed the tablets with the aid of water from a nearby cup. Skylar guided her to a bench near the table.
"You sit here and let that work. I can fix breakfast."
Jenna looked up at him, then allowed him the gallantry, sitting without protest, which let Skylar know even more clearly the extent of her discomfort. He turned back to the fire and his cooking.
The group met at the fire for a breakfast of bacon, eggs, and pancakes covered with small crushed berries.
“Wow, these pancakes sure are good this morning! Jenna, what did you put in them to give them that extra zing?” Mike asked.
“I didn’t make the breakfast this morning,” she said with a smile lighting her face. “Skylar did. You’ll have to ask him for his recipe.” She looked at Skylar, one eyebrow raised, the smile still evident.
“Okay, Skylar, what did you use? I don’t think I’ve ever tasted anything quite as good as these pancakes before.”
“Oh, I didn’t use anything special. A little of this and that. Mostly it tastes better than usual because all food tastes better in the mountains, just as a matter of course.”
“I hadn’t noticed that before. Are you sure you didn’t put something extra in them, Skylar?” He was serious in his question.
“I made them the way I always make them,” he said, slanting a glance at Jenna. “I’m sure it’s just the altitude making them taste different this morning.” He was glad Jenna hadn’t mentioned by name the kaermada spice, peculiar to Terradian cooking he’d added to the pancake batter. Their eyes met across the fire and they enjoyed the shared knowledge.
“Well, whatever, they sure taste good this morning. Thanks.” Mike helped himself to another two pancakes before sitting back down.
“You’re very welcome. I’m glad you like them.” he said.
The others agreed the breakfast was good this morning and they finished the meal in a companionable silence.
No sooner had they finished breakfast, than the sky seemed to open up and cover them with water. Everyone ran for Glen's tent, it being larger than the others. As quick as they were, they hadn’t been quick enough.
The experience was more akin to having a large bucket emptied over your head than being rained on, Skylar mused as he shook water out of his hair and sluiced rain from his face.
Watching from between the tent flap ties, Skylar observed the heavy rainfall. In less than two minutes the fire had been completely soaked and was out. He turned away from the storm, glad for the shelter.
The rain and wind lashed the tent so ferociously that, at times, they felt it might have blown away without their weight to anchor it. The group amused themselves throughout the morning by talking on various subjects or playing card games with a pack Glen had produced…‘for just such times as these’ he had quipped when they teased him about it.
The rain finally stopped around noon. By mutual consent, they decided to leave right away. Descending the mountain would take far less time than climbing it, and they may be able to get home in the hours left before darkness fell if they broke camp now.
As Skylar emerged from Glen’s tent, the changed appearance of their neat campsite shocked him, telling the tale of the storm’s fury more completely than they had known from inside their shelter.
Charles’ pup tent had completely collapsed, leaving a small mound of fabric piled over his pack and gear which were still inside.
Mike’s tent had ripped from its moorings and rolled across the clearing, landing upside-down, awash in the small lake that had been the fire-pit. Doubtless, the pack he’d left inside was the only reason it hadn’t blown completely away.
Mike eyed his gear and moaned softly, then turned toward Skylar’s pair of trees. His jaw dropped and his face wore an eloquent mixture of surprise and disgust as he eyed Skylar’s shelter and hammock, still hanging neatly in place where Skylar had left them. The only thing amiss was his pack, which had fallen from the broken-off branch and now sat on the ground by the tree’s roots. The beaded water on the pack’s surface was mute testimony that the contents remained dry. The look Mike shot Skylar should have scorched the air.
Skylar chuckled. “Special equipment…” he said with a shrug.
“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that one before,” Mike snapped as he strode off to rescue his pack from his upside-down tent.
Mud was thick everywhere and they sank as deep as their ankles in places that had been firm ground earlier in the morning.
Quickly packing their gear, they made another sled from the remaining poles and stowed all their packs on it, to make better time hiking out.
They descended the upper parts of the trail they had followed on their initial ascent, carefully maneuvering the sleds through the muck.
The heavy weight of the deer and the deep mud worked against them as far as time was concerned. Skylar noted their daylight hours were slipping quickly past as they traversed the tricky pathway. He hoped they could make it far enough to be out of the trees and into less rough terrain before their light was gone.
As they reached the dry wash portion of the trail, however, all hope of getting home before darkness vanished. The stream bed was now a muddy mass of water, plunging down the easiest and best route. It was small enough to be easily crossed, but would be impossible to use as a trail as they had on their outward journey.
Glen, in the lead, silently shrugged and forded the shallow but rapidly moving water, striking off between the trees where there was no path. Unhesitating in their trust, the party followed him. It grew dark before they reached a well-defined path in the lower parts of the forest. Stopping only long enough to pull flashlights from their packs, the group, now more than mildly anxious to get home, hurried on through the woods.
As they emerged suddenly from the trees into the meadow they’d crossed early the first morning, Skylar had a sudden appreciation for Glen’s woodcraft and navigation skills. Scudding clouds obscured the stars, as the nearly full moon played peek-a-boo between the puffy mounds of grey-black clouds. The horses, knowing they were close to their stable, quickened their pace, the tired walkers working hard to keep the group together.
When they finally arrived at the ranch, they gave the horses over to the care of Glen's stablemen and went to their respective rooms.
Skylar carried his pack upstairs and changed into his last set of clean clothes. Taking two more of the white tablets for Jenna, he headed downstairs for some of the hot stew Hannah had mentioned when they'd walked in. After a satisfying meal he returned to his room and spread his wet camp gear out to dry.
Hannah tapped on his door, requested his soiled clothing with an offer to clean them. He gave them to her, expressing his gratitude. As the door closed behind her, he dug out the datapad he was using to keep his log.
He recorded in it all the events of the past two days before he turned off the light and tumbled into bed, so tired he fell asleep fully clothed.