Chloe was still enough that she almost vanished into the bushes. Not a blink, not a twitch. Her breath was so slow and slight that she barely heard it. Long, slow, shallow breath in. Hold it. Long, slow, silent breath out.
She’d followed the pointed hoof tracks for three hours, and found they were heading uphill. Chloe wasn’t sure why; but knew that her quarry would have to make its way back; so she had gathered some snow and brambles; making a makeshift blind for her to settle behind, hiding her from view.
She’d stayed there for another hour, being as still and silent as possible; until she caught the movement. He… and Chloe was quickly certain that it was a ‘he’, was coming back finally. Deer had an odd stride, prancing over the snowdrifts rather than pushing through them, stopping and listening for predators at random intervals; scouting each area as they went.
The fur scarf Chloe wore made her breath warm and totally silent. She’d been still long enough that the smaller animals and birds had forgotten her. The deer hadn’t heard her at all. His head was tilted, listening for predators; head suddenly turning back and forth like a bird; cocking its ears one way, then another.
Chloe was still, willing her heart to beat quietly.Nothing out here. Nothing out here.
The deer was apparently satisfied, as he bent down to check the roots of a tree for grass. His eyes were pointed away from Chloe at last, and she moved. She rose from her blind and drew her bow in the same motion; smooth and practised. The slight scrape of the arrow-shaft against her bow was loud in the stillness; and the deer moved like she’d fired a starting gun, instinct telling him to flee before bothering to check. It was an instinct Chloe could understand. Stopping to think took precious seconds.
But by the time the deer had lifted his head, Chloe’s arrow was already in flight; slamming into the deer’s flank, between forelegs and neck. The deer nearly levitated; hooves coming clear off the ground at the impact. But he bolted, running for the trees; leaving a trail of blood that steamed for a few seconds where it hit snow.
Chloe, slower in her snowshoes, gave chase. It only took a few more moments before the deer faltered, legs getting confused; going down hard on his knees, before falling over flat. Chloe could hear the pained, panicked sounds it made… cut mercifully short as she caught up to her kill.
“I’m sorry.” She said softly. “I normally go for a far less painful shot; but the angles were all wrong; and I knew your head would move. If I’d caught up to your tracks back at the lake; you never would have known what hit you.” She checked the animal’s pulse; and found none, pulling the arrow free. “You’re a beautiful animal; but you do eat everything that grows, and breed fast enough that you’d be a danger to the woods if it wasn’t for predators like me. That’s what makes it legal and acceptable to old men in warm rooms far away. But I won’t let your loss be wasted. Every single thing I take from you will be put to use, and be necessary for my life. That’s what makes it acceptable to me.”
It was her tradition, almost a superstition, to plead this case to everything she hunted or snared. She was taking their lives; she could offer them an explanation. She thought of it as her ‘confession’.
She kept scanning constantly as she hauled the deer back towards her cabin. There were predators in these woods; and she knew better than to take fresh meat to her house. There were a few smaller hunting camps set up at a fair walking distance; where she would work to prepare the meat and hide. She’d established them over the years, specifically for this purpose.
“Some of the native tribes believed that Ravens were a sign of good luck to a hunter. That if you gave part of your hunt to the crows; you’d have good hunting next time.” Chloe puffed aloud to the deer as she hauled the carcass along the snow on a sled she’d fashioned out of rope and branches. “I don’t know if that’s true. But I remember my first hunt.” She shook her head. “This is more honest than that, surely?”
At the nearest hunting camp, there were two trees growing next to each other. Chloe had long since trimmed away the branches and bark between them; and turned the two trees into a frame that she could use to hang up the carcass. She did so, tossing a rope over a high branch as a pulley; to hoist the deer up by the hind legs; letting gravity bleed the meat clean; and she started making a campfire to warm her while she worked.
“Too bad Sam’s not here. I’m betting this’d make him puke.” Chloe said lightly. “Our ongoing debate over who can handle the other’s world…” She trailed off. “No. Actually, now that I think of it, I wouldn’t tease. He just lost his father; and was hoping to get away from it.” She shook her head sadly. “I hate to think of what he’s going through back there. But I know I shouldn’t want to bring dead things more to his mind if he’d made it here.”
Chloe warmed herself by the fire until the carcass had bled out, and then got to work with her knife, opening up the deer and removing the organs. The heart alone would make a large meal. There was more vitamins and nutrients in the liver than in most city people would get in a week.
Chloe cried a little over the deerskin. “You were beautiful.” She crooned softly, continuing her confession. “I’m not making a rug. Truth is, I need the meals; not the leather. But to waste it would be a sin. I promised you that nothing of what you offered would be squandered; and I’m keeping that promise. Your fur was an amazing gold, laid with silver. When I saw this speckled silver pattern… I suddenly realized that I’d seen you before.”
As she spoke, Chloe went to work, slicing neat incisions along the ankle bones, peeling the skin and fur back, taking care to make it one complete piece.
“Your family was the same little group that I saw at the lake last summer; just before Sam arrived. I remember, I went out to the lake, where my plane was. I was going to fly out and collect him. And there you all were. A Buck, with big antlers; a doe with the most amazing silver coat I’d ever seen, and a newborn fawn.” She looked back at the carcass. “That would be you.” Her tone had dropped, becoming reverent. “I saw your mother nuzzling into you, prodding you to walk away from me, and stay close to your father. Turned out to be good advice.”
Her words had slowed, and grown softer as she focused on her task. The hide had pulled free, with a little persuasion; and Chloe’s arms were starting to ache. The deer, stretched out vertically, was taller than she was.
She made a few cuts around the neck; leaving the head intact. Aside from the glassy eyes; it was still such a lovely face. “My father would take your head as a trophy, and leave the rest to rot... “ She blinked back another tear. “Your family is safe, I promise. Their tracks split off from you before I even started tracking. I don’t know why you broke from them, but they’re fine. I remember the way that silver doe leaned into her mate last year. She kept butting her muzzle into him, just under the jaw. There was no reason to, as far as I could see. Except that she wanted to. I’m betting she’s pregnant again already.”
She let that thought offer some comfort as she began jointing the carcass.
The frame she had built was tall enough to hang the Deer. As she finished the first part of her job, she tossed the bones into a woven basket; to be boiled up for stock. That alone was worth a dozen more meals. She stretched the hide in her frame, and fleshed it, carefully peeling away every single scrap of fat and meat and tissue from the inside of the skin. After that, she laid the hide flat, and covered it with a layer of salt. She could harvest salt, or something close to it, by boiling away berries; but a box of cheap salt was easy enough to get on her supply runs.
With the hide seen to, she hung the carcass again and went to work with her hatchet, carefully cutting flanks of meat. The mark of experience was in the amounts, making each cut of venison as uniform as possible, for later cooking. The fat she set aside in one of her clay pots; ready for use in cooking, or to make candles and soap.
“And I eat tonight.” She said, aching from the labors as she crouched lower to the ground at the edge of her workspace.
Chloe swept the snow aside until she found a wooden door, hinged with tied cordage. The hatchway itself was buried, painted down with dried clay; so that it blended into the ground completely. Chloe opened the hatch, revealing the two foot hole beneath, lined with rocks and clay to keep the dirt and bugs out. She lowered the parceled meat into the hiding place, and sealed the hatch back over it; sweeping fresh snow over the top again. The larder was cool, even in summer, safely below ground. At this time of year, it was as reliable as any deep freeze. Chloe laid her meat supply inside. She had several other such larders in all her hunting camps. The deerskin was drying on its frame; the meat was secured in her frozen hiding places.
She turned the earth over quickly, trying to tidy the spot; and sweeping snow over as much of the blood as she could. The less scavengers and predators she attracted, the better.
“At least there’s no flies or mosquitoes this time of year.” She commented to herself.
The hide was already getting stiff, the salt sucking moisture away from the skin as she rolled it up and took it back to her Cabin.
Chloe’s limbs had nearly seized up completely as she returned home. She went inside and set her largest pot by the fireplace, which she built up, heating water for a bath. A relaxing steam, and a warm soak was just what the doctor ordered. She boiled as much water as she could, and took it across to her bathhouse, filling her canvass tub.
It felt decadent, eating dinner in a warm bath, breathing the faint woodsmoke, and listening to the tremble of her fireplace as the wind blew outside. After a while, the water got cooler; and Chloe reached over for the thermos, which kept at least half a gallon near-boiling hot. It bought her another luxurious half hour.
There was nobody to remind her of the time, or press her to get back to work; but after a while she surrendered, getting up to drain the tub, and head back to her cabin.
Chloe was up with the dawn.
Sam asked me once what I do all day.She smirked to herself. There are always things to do.
The first thing was The Deerhide. The salt had cured it overnight, and the next step was to soak it; and she put it in a sealed plastic drum. It would stay there while she worked for the rest of the day.
Her routine was fairly flexible; but if she ignored it, there were consequences. Her sourdough provided bread every day with nothing but flour and water; but it had to be set up early in the morning. Her oven was wood-fired, and the ashes of the day before had to be cleaned out; to be added to her compost bin for the following spring.
Firewood was always a priority, and between storms she had to go further out to find it. If she cut trees around her cabin too heavily, the wildlife would flee the area for good habitats; and she’d lose her protection from the storms. She preferred deadwood; but her fireplace and oven took a lot of fuel, and she had to collect a decent supply of it. After storms, there would always be broken and fallen branches, and she harvested them as quickly as she could.
After that, there were her snares to think of. During the winter, her vegetable patch was growing underground plants like carrots and potatoes, and such things had to be protected from herbivores that could dig, like voles and rabbits. She reset the traps every night.
After that came foraging. Birch bark made excellent tinder; and the inner bark was a good flour substitute, but had to be harvested respectfully; as taking too much would be fatal to the tree in the cold. Chloe had birch trees growing between her house and the lake. On the other side were a huge collection of cranberry bushes that Chloe had carefully cultivated over the years. Cranberries survived all winter; and made excellent jams and preserves.
The whole trip took her in a complete circuit around her cabin; almost half a day’s walk. Coming home with baskets of food, Chloe spent her afternoon canning and preparing them to eat. She’d collected a handful of juniper berries, and tossed a few straight into her fireplace; filling the whole cabin with a subtle, spicy fragrance.
After that, maintenance. Her firewood was protected from the weather by a roof made of clay tiles, which she made from clay and fired herself. If a tile, or a window, or any other part of her camp ever broke, or took storm damage, she needed to do her own repairs.
By this time, the deerskin was ready for the next step: To oil the hide; and she pulled it out to drain.
Chloe set two sourdough loaves to bake while she worked; and added some venison to her cooking pot with crushed cranberries, mushrooms that she had foraged and dried over the autumn, and some carrots and garlic from her garden. She set the pot on top of the wood oven. It would bake her bread and cook her lunch at the same time.
Tanning oil was available from stores; and she even had some. The natural way to was to use the animal’s brains, mixed with water. It was how you turned rawhide into leather. Chloe had left the deer’s head for the Ravens. It was considered good luck, for a hunter to leave an offering. The deer’s head would be picked clean by them by now; and she was in no mood to fight the scavengers.
Tanning the hide was a simple, careful job. You just had to get every inch of it. Chloe worked methodically, and declared herself finished as the smell of venison stew and sourdough bread filled her cabin.
Every inch of her cabin was workspace as much as living space. That meant every inch was used for multiple purposes; including the walls. Her tools, weapons; and snowshoes were usually hanging along one wall; and she took them down to make room. She stretched the hide across the wall, and pinned it there; like a wall hanging. It would stay there for a few days, at least.
Chloe was starving by the end of this and settled in to eat; eyes scanning her kitchen shelves automatically. Her preserves were all lined on shelves in the kitchen area, or safely packed away in her caches. Some were outside, some under the floorboards. Everything she had grown, hunted, or foraged over the course of the summer and autumn. Enough to see her through the winter.
And that was when the melancholy came at her in a wave. Aside from the gory bits yesterday, Sam would have loved this; and it would have been nice to have his company.Chloe hadn’t chosen this life because she wanted a lot of friends. She didn’t dislike people at all, so much as she preferred nature. But most of what kept her busy and engaged was finished before winter hit. Most animals were snug in their dens as much as possible by this time of year; herself included.
Most of those cosy, comfortable animals would be curled up with their mates.
Chloe shook that thought off, and cleaned up the dishes from her lunch. With the work done, Chloe checked the time and pulled her overcoat back on. If the weather was going to hold, she had just enough time to reach the Depot, near the Pass at the mouth of her Valley before dark. Her ATV was running low on fuel, and a night outside didn’t frighten her. She’d done it before, many times.
The days were getting shorter as she pulled up at the Depot; with only an hour left before dark. She used the fuel tank to top up her ATV; and the spare fuel canisters. Her Uncle brought in the resupply three times a year; and Chloe had to admit to a sense of worry. If the Department did shut down her Uncle’s Station, she would either have to move, or find another source. Her plane was fairly fuel efficient, for its age; and she returned to civilization enough to top it up without any problems; but the ATV was another matter. She had to track the weight of her flights; and if the Depot closed down with the Station, she would have to fly fuel in on her supply runs; which would cost her greatly in the other supplies she could carry.
It had been three weeks since she’d last spoken with anyone outside the Valley. Not a hardship; as she always had plenty to do, and enough supplies to wait out the whole winter; with some judicious hunting and trapping.
But her Uncle had the plane, and he had not returned. Being out of contact with Ewan and having no fixed return date was starting to concern her a little. She knew the radio at the Station was no use.
If something unexpected happens to keep Ewan from flying back; he will have to come in from the ground. Is the pass even open?
Chloe topped off her tanks, and checked the sky. She had enough time to check the Pass out of the Valley before dark.
She made it to the Pass very quickly; and slammed on the brakes as she came over the rise. A tree had fallen across the bridge. Not unusual, at that time of year; but it would be enough to stop her uncle if he had to drive in.
“Without the radio, you’d have to handle it all by yourself.” Chloe thought aloud. “And I love you Uncle, but you really can’t tie your shoes without me.” She went to the tree, and pulled off her mittens to get a good grip; seeing how moveable it was. It was big enough that it didn’t want to move easily, but she was able to see past it…
And nearly fell over.
She stared in blatant shock for a few moments, before her brain-lock released her and she quickly climbed over the tree, levering herself on the branches to roll over the top of it.
There was a Jeep, completely burned out; half-hanging over the edge of the bridge, which was already half-wrecked by a landslip. The whole area was covered in snow. It hadn’t happened recently. It wasn’t a Department 4WD. It wasn’t her Uncle.
Which means it could only be...
With daylight fading, Chloe was counting the minutes as she checked the scene with a hunter’s eye; sweeping the snow back gently. Frozen in the mud were footprints… and Pawprints.
“Sam.” Chloe whispered in horror. She turned back to the ridge. “SAM!” She called. No answer. She cupped her hands around her mouth. “SA-A-A-AM!” She yelled for him, loud enough that her throat felt raw. Tears gathered in her eyes as the weight of it settled in on her. “If I’d just come as far as the Pass, I would have found you!” She hissed sickly. “What have I done!?” She wheeled away from the wreck. “SAM!” She howled to the wilderness again, guilt making her desperate.
There was no answer.
“Alright. Think.” She told herself weakly. “You can tear yourself apart, or you can do something. What’s it going to be?” She’d survived more than a few winters in the Valley; and had not given in to despair once. “Right. So get busy.”
The tracks told her a story. She walked from the bridge’s broken edge to the Jeep; and back again. “Alright. Sam was stopped by the fallen tree… He got out of the Jeep… The tree isn’t that huge. He knew I was waiting. He could have climbed over it and come to the Depot on foot.” She followed the tracks. “He was… stalked? Looks like a big cat. Maybe a mountain lion…” She followed the tracks to the edge. “Ohgod…” She turned back to the scene. “Wait… more tracks, deeper and clearer to read… So the rain washed away most of the footprints... So he either stayed with the Jeep, or came back to it…” She looked back at the wreck. “Before, or after it burned out? Because if Sam was in the Jeep when it burned…” She peered in. “Did you burn hot enough to leave no trace? No… Can’t have. There’d be some bones, or something, wouldn’t there?”
Maybe not.A little voice said in her head. But if he burned enough to leave no trace, it’s over. So, assuming he’s alive...
“So you got out of the Jeep…” She crouched, trying to see where the newest tracks led. “The mud didn’t settle before it was frozen over. So it was after the rains, but before the snow… First snowfall was weeks ago…”
The thought stopped her dead. “Weeks.” She breathed in horror. “And I didn’t even know he was up here...” She squeezed her eyes shut against all the images that thought provoked. “No. Don’t think like that. Focus. Where did he go?”
He would try to find me. The road doesn’t take him anywhere near the cabin, and going back the way he came on foot won’t take him anywhere near help.Chloe thought it out. Aloud, she tried to play it out in his head. “Alright, he might be injured. He’d be on foot… I have no idea what supplies he has… If he had a sat-phone or a locator beacon, he could have called for help… If he was rescued, he would have let me know, surely?”
She hurried back to her ATV. “Alright, you’ve got half an hour of daylight left. Time enough to search to the end of the road and back. If he set up a campfire somewhere, I can find it…”
The Search got off to a bad start.
Chloe had gone from the Bridge to the end of the dirt road and back again. She forced herself to go slowly, eyes roving over everything. She spent the rest of her first day trying to work her ATV in ever growing circles from the Bridge outward. But the darkness had closed in swiftly after she found the wreck.
As the cold moved in like a juggernaut, she’d stayed at the Depot, in her tent, waiting for daylight. It had been a hellish night, laying awake; trying to stop her brain. She’d been unable to help herself, thinking of everything that could end Sam’s life, imagining it in vivid detail.
The pawprints from the Big Cat had been the worst dream of all, since she’d seen them around the wreck. She knew that Cougar and Mountain Lions had been in her general area, but she’d never seen one in the Valley.
“Maybe it’s not so bad.” She said softly to herself in the dark. “Maybe it’s just a big lynx or something…”
But inwardly, she didn’t believe it.
She dozed a little, off and on. When she slept, there were nightmares.
“The Station.” She said finally, air misting her breath, and she settled into her sleeping bag tightly. “He’d go to the Station. The Station and the Lake are the easiest landmarks to find.”
The sun rose, and Chloe emerged with purpose. Having settled on a direction, she hated to stop and take down her tent, but if her search took longer than a day, she’d need it. And Sam had already been missing for weeks.
“Weeks.” She breathed again in blatant dread. “Alright, Chloe. Think. The Station is close, at least for an ATV, but if Sam followed the gentle slope, you would have found him; or at least some sign of him along the road. A Footprint. A burned out campfire. Something. So he went cross-country. Which makes sense, since he’s on foot; and it’s a shorter hike. So you have to search everywhere between here and the Station.”
Oh, sure.She thought grimly to herself.Because that’ll be so easy. The reason you don’t take the ATV this way is because you’d flip the thing on these inclines.
She climbed onto the ATV and gunned the engine. “Hang on, Sam. I’ll find you!” She vowed. “I brought you up here, and I promise, I’ll find you.”
A Note From The Author: I hope you're all enjoying 'Dear Chloe' in its serialised format. If you'd like to read the whole thing at once, and take it with you, you can buy the whole book here in eBook and Paperback Format.
I found one of your clay pots. The ones you made while I was up here last Summer? The Station had two of them. Your uncle apparently liked your work. I told you that you could sell them professionally back home; and I meant it. I remember thinking, when I saw you painting them, that I don’t know how the actual, professional ones are made.
While trying to get my limbs working again, I’ve kept to a routine. Slow walking around the shelter, then the stairs outside. Standing very still at regular intervals, but staying on my feet; and limping my way around the area, to collect dead wood for the stove. It’s funny, but I find myself missing the small A-Frame shelters I made outside. It’s easier to get to the firewood then. And easier for Predators to get inside, I suppose. I wake up every night, dreaming about the Cougar
But, the time has given me one advantage: I’m learning. I’ve been watching the woods around this Station for days. I can see the wildlife, going about their routine, blissfully unaware of me watching. The Station’s been so quiet, I guess they don’t think of it as dangerous anymore.
It’s interesting, Chloe. I always thought of myself a fairly intelligent guy. I’ve known about the food chain since second grade. I’ve known about first aid since my sister declared she wanted to be a Doctor and practised for hours and hours on bandaging me up like a mummy; ever since we were kids. I thought I knew a fair bit about camping and bushcraft until my first Summer here with you.
I didn’t know a damn thing. I see that now. I’ve spent my entire time here staring out these windows, and I’m coming to know the neighbors. I can see how a rabbit or a field mouse will suddenly go still when a shadow shifts over them. I can see the way their ears prick up as they listen for a predator. I can see some predators, constantly scanning over the grass, where it pokes through. I can see the tracks that every single thing leaves in the snow. The prey animals follow each other’s tracks. I wonder about that; given that I’m prey too. I’ve got to learn how to evade a predator. No sign of the Demon Cat; but I know he’s still there.
As reality shows go, I give it 2/10 for production value, but 10/10 for believability.
Alright, let’s apply some intelligence to this. There are rabbits; and other assorted small furry things. I need wire, or cord of some kind to make a snare. You showed me how to do that. But I have no line. I remember you making cordage. I wish I could find some of those vines now; but even if I did, they’d surely be frozen solid. You showed me how to do it with tree bark, of certain types; but the bark is all frozen too.
I still have my clothes. I’m not about to cannibalize my shoelaces again. I remember reading something about survival gear that said: ‘Aside from things like weapons and First Aid Kits, you measure the importance of things by how far you get without them’. By that measure, my shoes are the most important things I own right now.
My ruined jacket has a hood, with a cord to pull the hood tighter around my face. After fighting with El Diablo, I’ve decided not to use the hood unless I have to. I want the full range of vision. That gives me about two or three feet of strong cord, woven strong, with metal tips.
I also have a knife. My elk-bone blade needs to be sharpened constantly, but it’s been a good pal. The carving knife from the Station’s Kitchenette is really not designed for wilderness survival, but it’s steel. Something I can’t just whip up on my own.
I’ve been following rabbit trails from up here for more than half a week. Time to put that to work. I’ve selected two places that I think might work for snares. Chloe, whenever you set snares like this, I wondered how a rabbit could be so stupid as to walk through such an obvious trap. I wondered if rabbits have terrible vision, or just aren’t smart enough to figure out what a cord going from the stick to a branch overhead means for their necks. I put the snare straight over the game trail (Which is visible now that I’m seeing tracks in the snow) and put some sticks and leaves on either side of it to make it seem like a natural open passage in bushes.
Took me four tries to get the noose knot right. My fingers are still thick and stupid from the cold; but the real problem is the snow. I’m blind every time I leave the Station. It’s like the universe is covered with hundreds of tiny mirrors, pointing sunlight at my eyes.
But I got the snares set up and went back inside.
One snare, one rabbit. Big one, too. More Bugs Bunny than Peter Rabbit. I was watching the snare all night, and nothing. I wake up this morning, and I see the snare is tripped. While I slept. I could have saved myself three hours of staring at nothing. You don’t get that time back.
It couldn’t have happened early in the night, or I’d have a frozen block of rabbit to deal with. The ice is thick in its (his? her?) fur, so I lit a fire in the wood stove and am waiting for the thing to thaw out. Next step is going to be preparing this thing. I know how to get the skin off. Chloe taught me that; though I suspect it was purely to punish me for the time I gave her ice cream and made her sick. Did I ever tell you that story, dad? You and I didn't stay in contact as much as we should have. I feel bad about that, given how things
One thing I’ve learned is you don’t waste fire time. I’m heating water and warming up my socks too. I read somewhere that the thing people ask for most in homeless shelters is warm socks. I get why, now. Every morning I wake up and the tips of my toes are tinged dark blue. Bad circulation, I guess; but a hot shower is out of the question. If I get frostbite up here, I’m in real trouble. Heating my socks in front of the fire before putting them on is the sort of luxury that can make a man feel civilized.
I’ve brought in some rocks from outside. They’re always on top of the stove, heating up. The closest thing to a hot water bottle I can have at night.
I know that to prep a rabbit, or any animal, really; I have to remove the organs first. They’re edible, but not the digestive tracktract. That’s where the bugs live. I got all my shots before coming up here; but I’m in no shape for dysentery.
Given that I plan to stew the meat, it’s okay if I mess up a bit. In fact, my semi-dull bone blade will likely be the best thing for filleting the fur off.
Rabbit’s thawed out. Wish me luck, dad.
Well, I made a mess of it; but I appear to have sorted an amount of rabbit meat for stewing purposes. The pieces are not at all uniform for cooking; and it turns out blood coagulates a lot faster than I expected (especially at subzero temperatures) so I can’t bleed the meat, but I have a large handful of meat; and it’s currently cooking. I have bones which are small enough to be dangerous, but they’re boiling to make broth.
I still don’t have a flask or water bottle; so the entire broth goes in the pot. I also don’t have any way to carry leftovers, so I have to try my luck with portions. If I leave anything I don’t eat outside, it’ll stay cold; but I know leaving cooked meat outside is going to draw predators; or at least scavengers.
The rabbit is average sized, and it’s good for one meal. And I can’t exactly snare as I travel to the lake; I’d have to travel all the way back to check on them. I need to make more snares. Chloe, I remember you once telling me that you made line from the animals you hunted. Rabbit guts, or sinew or something. Not sure. I think I made a hash of that.
I scrubbed the rabbit skin as clean as I dared with snow; and then I worked it over the handrail of the Station. Smooth, curved; and anchored. The rabbitskin is thus as flat and as clean as I can make it by hand. I used my Elk-bone to slice away any bits of meat and blood that lingered. There’s a notice board in the Station, so I was able to use the pins. I’ve got the rabbitskin stretched on the notice board, and I have that turned and propped up to the window so that it gets the sunlight. I have no idea if that’s the right way to cure a rabbitskin, but I vaguely remember you saying something like that.
Decision time. Ewan’s jacket is here, and it fits me well enough to keep warm. The jacket I’ve been wearing is semi-shredded after the Cougar. I’ve got sharp knives now. I could make part of this jacket into cordage.
Of course, if I screwed up my math on how warm the Ranger Coat is, I’ll freeze to death after tearing up my cold-weather gear for parts. And if I screwed up harvesting this rabbit, I’ll be dead of food poisoning by morning.
But hey, I’ve got four rabbit’s feet now. Maybe my luck will change.
“The term is ‘deadweight’.” Chloe says helpfully.
“Think those wolves would be able to flop me around the same way?”
“The wolves won’t skin you when they eat.” Chloe explains patiently. “Now, remember: Don’t go too deep with the knife. You want to peel the fur back in a complete piece. Don’t worry about the skin. That’ll come with the fur. It’s everything underneath that we need to concern ourselves with.”
“I saw the one you skinned yesterday, roasting over the fire. It almost looked like the rabbits I’ve seen in butcher shops, except for… well.”
“The organs? Those next.” Chloe says lightly as she literally peelsthe rabbit’s skin off. “Nature, Townie. It’s not cute and cuddly. Rabbit fur is thin. It’s much harder to do this with Deer, and nearly impossible with a moose.”
“Yeah.” I tell her, nonplussed. “You know, I didbring food with me.”
“You brought garbage.” Chloe corrects me. “And I don’t mean that as an insult to your cooking; or even your ingredients. I mean that quite literally. Your supplies are in wrappers and cans.”
I swiftly understand. “And you don’t have a regular garbage truck through here, do you?”
“So anything I throw away, I have to live with.” Chloe nodded. “When I make my supply run, I choose the products carefully. I need things that can be reused when they’re empty. The tins? Only with resealable lids. The mason jars? I always break a few on the trip back. Cheaper to use plastic, but plastic can’t be reused for preserves.”
“And I’m guessing you can say the same about the rabbit?”
Chloe chuckles. “I freaked out my first time skinning a rabbit. But that was so many meals ago I honestly can’t remember how old I was.” She nudges me. “Don’t feel bad. You wanted to see if you could handle my world. You’ve done better than I thought. You remember how I nearly had a panic attack when I was staying with you? Over a sushi shop?”
“More because of the six lane freeway outside, I think.” I remind her. “What’s next?”
“Joint the thing. Feel around with your knife, up under its legs. You’ll find the ball and socket joint in the hip. Pop it out.”
I swallow against the rising bile, and obey. “My sister thinks I came up here for something far more sordid. I have half a mind to invite her up here next year.”
Chloe laughs delightedly. “Don’t stress, handsome. We’ll go fishing tomorrow; act like this is a ‘civilised’ camping trip.”
Chloe has already gathered some sticks and deadwood, building a little campfire for us. “We’ll roast this up for lunch. Trust me. It always tastes better when you catch it yourself.” She gestures over my shoulder. “I’m sure he agrees.”
I turn to look; and have a flash of The Cougar leaping at me, teeth first.
And that’s when I wake up. As nice as it is to see Chloe again, I’m really starting to hate these dreams.
Time to start thinking long term.
The Great Jacket Sacrifice worked. It had nylon, which I was able to cut into strips and weave into cord. I now have enough for three snares. If I can catch multiple rabbits, I can take them with me; prepare them while I walk. I figure it’ll take me two or three days to reach the lake. If I can’t see you; or signal in some way; I’ll have to hike around it, or wait for it to freeze enough to cross over it. Either way is going to be a long-term problem. Best to hone my survival skills while I have this Station to fall back on.
So, what will I need?
1) Shelter.I made a few A-Frame shelters getting here. I plan to experiment with what’s outside. If I fail to make a good shelter, then I’d rather fail while right outside this Station than somewhere deeper into the Valley.
2) Heat.The Station has matches, but they aren’t the waterproof kind. I know from experience that snow gets into everything, becomes water. When I arrived, even on the nights when I had fire, everything was soaked through by the time I was done hiking. My sweat, the snow that fell; all of it condensed into my clothes (and froze). I carry matches in my pockets, and I might have to dry them before they’ll light. Besides, if the Jeep going up in flames taught me anything, it was to never trust my life to things that required technology to always work. Matches, for all their simplicity, are still technology.
3) Protection. A weapon would be much appreciated. Admittedly, the cold is a bigger danger, but Diablo is never far from my thoughts. More than that, I need a way to hunt. Snares only work when camping in one place.
4) Food and Water. That’s the trickier one. Transporting food is not easy. I’m looking at turning the blanket into a bindle; which won’t be that hard. The poncho will have a dozen uses, but transporting water isn’t going to be one of them. The kettle in the Station is electric, which is out. I’ve been heating water by putting the metal mug on top of the wood-burning heater, and then putting a coaster over the top to keep the heat in.
Which means I need to be a whole lot better at finding food as I go.
If I’m going to make a bow and arrow, I’ll need to make cord. And the woven cord I made from the Jacket isn’t elastic enough to work for a slingshot, or
Sounds crazy, but my first thought was: I don’t want to talk to Chloe about this.
I just figured out how to make a slingshot. I do have two bands of elastic with me. One in my trousers, one in my underwear. I mentioned that I’ve dropped a few belt loops? I don’t have a belt for my jockey shorts. So the underwear I’m wearing is now a size too big for me.
Needs must, when the devil drives.
Update: So, it worked. I cut the elastic waistband out in one complete piece. Not much power, but if I wind it into cord, it’s better than throwing a stone by hand. Finding a tree branch with a fork in it was easier than I thought. So easy, in fact, that I spent some time looking for a superior one.
That stone edge I haven’t used since the bone-blade worked? I fastened it to a branch handle, and made an old-style axe. What is that called? I can’t think of the word.
I haven’t used a slingshot since I was twelve years old, bullseyeing Pepsi cans in the backyard. The rabbits are hard to see. Their fur blends in with the snow perfectly; and they know how to keep very still when someone’s looking for them. The birds are a different matter. There’s only so many ways they can hide… But they’re a lot harder to hit.
The snow made it difficult to find proper stones. The ground around here didn’t have much in the way of pebbles, but there was gravel laid down around the carport outside. I’ve been gathering pebbles and getting to know my new slingshot, carving at the handle a bit.
I’m a much, much worse shot than I remember. But at the end of a day’s practise, I managed to hit the target I made for myself out of tree bark stuck upright in the snow.
I drew the target to look like a furry little rabbit face. It’s the only part of a rabbit that won’t vanish into the scenery. Note to self: Get better at spotting the trails.
I set the new snares. Three snares, only two trails that I could find. I’ll either eat really well, or frighten off any living thing I don’t get tonight. Back home, the Supermarket always has fresh supplies on the shelf every day. Out here in the wild, I don’t know if the snares will deliver, one day to the next.
Adze. That’s the word. My stone axe is called an adze.
I figured out a way to carry some water. Not much, but some. I mentioned that my wristwatch was busted? Well, the strap is still good. Same sort of fastening as my belt; but on the furthest out hole in the strap, my watch is just about as far around as the top of that clay pot I found. If I cut a piece of the tarp, I can strap a lid onto your pot/cup. I’ll have to keep it upright, but that’s doable. I’m crafting a bindle out of this blanket, and that includes using the rabbit skins. The skins are way too thin and fragile to do anything serious, but once the hide dries out, I can cut it into strips and weave a loop that I can put your pot into. It won’t be much, but it’ll be enough to carry a cupful of water upright without spilling it, or taking up my hands the whole way. Every night I will fill it with snow, and keep it close enough in my shelter to thaw it into water for the morning. Anytime I have a campfire, I can do the same.
The snares were empty this morning. I have until nightfall to decide if it means I should move them, or be patient.
You remember how you used to roll your eyes at my impatience? It wasn’t that I was impatient, it was that I had a short attention span. Too many things available. For the first time since going over the side of that bridge, I have options again. I’ve taken to doing spot drills. Build a shelter, make a fire, use the slingshot. I’ve been mixing it up all day, going from one task to the other. I figure I have to be good at improvising when I make my trip.
I’m getting better at making fire without matches. I have a firestick now, for making embers. And now that I’ve made a bow-drill and figured out tinder and twigs; it’s all very doable. The shelter is another matter. I have to find the right kind of things. Sticks and leaves and snow are everywhere. Long thin sticks to make the main A-frame is something else entirely. There are many such branches, up over my head; but I don’t have a ladder or saw-blade. I thought there’d be a toolkit somewhere; but I guess it’s already packed away. Chloe, you’re too organized.
On the plus side, I’m getting better with the slingshot. If I miss, and lose the stone in all the knee-deep snow here, I can go back to the gravel path and find some more. If I miss and lose a stone on the hike, I won’t have any construction-grade gravel to turn to. As a result, I’m not game to take a shot at the birds yet. I want to be really good at the spot drills.
I got a shelter done after an hour’s work. The timing is important, because here I can return to shelter. On the hike, I have to account for construction time, trouble finding a place, trouble finding the right kind of sticks and branches.
I feel like I’m on another planet. My world is so far away it feels like a dream. And in my dreams there’s nothing certain but The Demon Cat.
I would give my left kidney for a cheeseburger.
“That’s quite a talent, to do freehand.” I comment.
“I hope I didn’t wake you.” Chloe doesn’t look up from her little pottery project. Her cabin has a porch around it, and as I came out to stretch in the morning light, she’s already hard at work. “These pots have been sitting for almost a week, which means they’re dry.”
“Where do you get the clay?”
“Down by the lake. I go and get heaps of the stuff, spend a day making whatever I need; and let them sit for a week on the porch. You have to let the sun bake the moisture out of them. Even a drop of liquid still in the middle? The pot will explode when you fire them.”
I look around her set-up; and realize just how much of this is her own work. There are large baskets woven of dried vines; holding fruits, and charcoal and even drying leaves. The firewood is stacked under a hut with hand-made ceramic tiles to keep the rain off. The glass jars and tins are all inside, on every shelf, holding everything from flour and sugar, to jam and salted meat.
Chloe goes to her firewood pile and starts arranging the logs in a tripod around her new clay pots and bowls. “We’ll build a fire this morning before we go; and the ceramics will fire while we’re away. If they glow red hot, they won’t dissolve back into clay when they get wet.”
“How many have you made?” I ask her with interest.
“Enough to keep stores through winter.” Chloe says cheerfully. “I also have a few caches here and there. You have your snacks for hiking, I have mine.”
Something I forgot to add to my list. The weather. The Firewatch Station includes a few basic weather-recording tools, so I’ve got a thermometer and barometer. I’ve never read a barometer before, but I suddenly figured it out as the storm rolled in.
It hit just as the sun went down. It has now been raging for three straight hours. Lots of wind, lots of snow. Thunder and lightning too, but that was off in the distance. If the lightning comes this way, I don’t know what I’ll do. My limited shelter outside? Six to one I’ll walk straight past it in the dark; especially with the snowstorm. And that’s if it’ll keep standing up to this.
The Station feels like it’s going to take off like a kite. I’m clinging to the cot like it’s a seatbelt. I can feel the whole place swaying in the wind. The snowflakes are literally bits of water the size of dust mites, and I can hear them rapping against the glass like a machine gun.
It’s truly terrifying. If a storm like this had hit on Day One, I’d be dead right now.
Chloe, one of the selling points on the wilderness, according to you, is the peace and quiet. It’s not quiet. The world is coming apart in this windstorm. Right down to the cells of my body; it’s all in a washing machine, being thrown about like a scene out of Wizard of Oz.
Did we ever watch that movie, Chloe? One of my earliest memories of dad is that movie. He was singing along at the top of his lungs, making a fool of himself; and I was laughing hard enough to fall off the couch. I was six or seven, I think.
The Station just shook. I mean, it actually shook. I feel like everything in here moved half an inch with that last gust. This is truly terrifying.
So Good News: I lived. The Station kept standing. Bad News: The storm hasn’t stopped. Two days, and it hasn’t stopped blowing. I can’t see the stairs outside my door. Good News: the storm broke long enough for me to go out and check my snares. I have two new Rabbits. Two out of three ain’t bad. Bad News, running out of firewood.
I doubt I’ll catch much more until the storm breaks. I can’t set these things in a blizzard anyway. Those rabbits, the wolves; maybe even the Cougar; all snug in their dens; waiting out the storm. I bet their dens don’t sway like they’re going to tip over. Maybe the birds know what it’s like. Note to self: Don’t make any shelters in trees.
I feel less bad about freezing up during the accident. I was reviewing what I remembered about the area around the Station, and I realized something interesting. Prey often freezes up. I saw a bobcat, before the blizzard. His prey was pretty close to where he put his feet. I never noticed before, because I only ever looked at the bobcat. But now that I've learned to hunt rabbits by their trails, I noticed what happened when he passed by. The little animals started coming out of hiding.
It was amazing, but I swear, they didn't have hiding places. They just... froze. They held position when they sensed a predator, and they went unnoticed.
I've been hating myself for over a week, fixating on what a damned coward I was when that Cougar came loping up to me at the Bridge. When I saw the landslip coming, I froze. In all the movies, I always sneer at the character that stands there screaming when some monster comes running at them. I always thought it was brainlock, but now I see it as something far deeper. It's basic prey response. Something scary? Freeze, and maybe it won't notice. Too bad a rockslide didn't get that memo.
Even here, I’m having the same instinct. I see the Blizzard, and part of me wants to dig in here. I know I have to move when the storm clears, but I don’t want to. I have no idea what’s going to be between here and the Lake. But even if I risk starving to death, part of me wants to stay at the Station. And then the wind picks up and I want out.
Sucks to be me.
Okay, time to go for broke. I’ve been practicing my ability to build shelters in a hurry. I’ve built two outside. I’m going to head for one of them as soon as the storm lets up a bit. These Shelters have to protect me from the weather; and the only way to know if it will is to be in them when the weather hits. Best to do that when I have the Tower to fall back to. As soon as I can make it down the stairs without being blown away; I’m goin-
Great. Lightning too. And a lot closer than it was last time.
Remember how obsessed I was with lego when I was little? I have this vague memory of drawing up plans to build a proper lego house for me to live in. I remember, it was going to have a tower and a secret tunnel and everything.
I’m currently sitting in my shelter, waiting out the storm. I’ve got the thermometer with me, so I can keep an eye on the indoor temp. If I can keep it to within a few degrees of freezing or warmer; I’ve got a chance of making it to the lake.
Also, I have a blanket and a tarp now, so I have something to sleep on, and under; to insulate myself from the icy ground. Don’t let the ‘thinking positive’ vibe fool you, though. There’s a damn blizzard happening outside, and I’m trystingtrusting to sticks and leaves that I’ll survive. I thought the leaves and debris I stacked up would blow away; but it turns out that they’re plastered down by the foot of snow on top of everything now. I’m actually wondering which is more dangerous, freezing, or being snowed under and suffocated.
The Station means I can keep melting snow for water, in larger quantities than I did while walking. So dehydration is less of an issue. Relieving myself? That’s a bigger problem. Having water means it’s gotta go somewhere for once. The temperature is so low I’m scared to go out and pee. What happens if it freezes solid too fast? I remember the ‘polar vortex’ that hit Chicago last year; they showed someone throwing a pot of boiling water out the window, and having it turn to snow before it hit ground. Up this far north? This is where the ‘polar vortex’ comes from. How game am I to unzip? Of all the places I really don’t want to get frostbite, that’s gotta be the top of the list.
Nothing left for me here. It’s time to get moving. The storm has broken. I woke up this morning and skies were clear; but the terrain is entirely different. I spent days studying the area, and now it’s like a whole other planet; with the snow drifts all tossed around.
I timed myself on a walk this morning. I used the Tower as a reference point and walked in a straight line towards the lake for an hour; using the sun as a guide. I barely made it three hundred feet. The snow is thick and I have to push through it constantly. The ground underneath is uneven, and going downhill. I have no idea if I’m walking off a cliff. It doesn’t even have to be a cliff. A ledge of five feet would be enough to bury me; and what I know of the terrain from before the snow started says there’s jagged drops and falls all over the place. At some point my foot’s going to go through snow and land wrong.
Hey, if I sprain an ankle; at least I’m knee deep in ice and snow. It’s like walking through an ice pack. I regret going commando for a slingshot. I haven’t bagged a meal with it yet; and my legs feel like they’re in acid, the cold bites into them so much.
My regular pants will never be the same either; but there’s no way around that. I figure I can cover a half-mile per day; as the crow flies. With my food supplies limited; and nobody looking for me; I’ve decided to be more cautious with my energy. I can push hard to make it to the Lake faster; but there’s no pushing against the wilderness. It’s unstoppable.
I’ve packed my bindle. The clothes on my back; some rabbit meat wrapped in the poncho; assorted kitchen utensils; a steel coffee mug; nineteen matches; a map of the area, three drying rabbit skins; three snare lines; my elk-bone blade; a firestick, and my stone adze. I’m also taking my journal, my pencil, a handful of push-pins from the notice board (Because you never know) and the thermometer/barometer.
Not a lot; but more than I had when I first wententered the forest. I’ve got handfuls of shredded, dried grasses and leaves that make good tinder. My firemaking skills are almost passable.
I’m leaving my dead phone, and a letter behind, just in case. Someone will be along to check on this Station eventually; probably before my sister figures out where to send a rescue. I don’t think Liz has any idea where Chloe’s place is, beyond saying: ‘The Wilderness.’
Just about every inch of me hurts. I still have the spear, and have been using it as a walking stick, feeling ahead as I hike through the snow. As a result, I moved a lot slower than I thought I would.
I’m amazed how much of the greenery has survived the snow. The leaves are so hardy here. The vines, I can’t remember what Chloe called them, but it grows like weeds in an alpine area; and they curl into each other constantly; so when I push some vines aside, I’m also pushing more into my way. There isn’t a single inch of this place that isn’t under the branches of a tree.
I’ve lost feeling in my legs, pushing through the snow, which just slowed me down more. I know the solution to that is to warm up; but I can’t do that on the move. I’ve already decided to conserve my calories. Building a shelter is actually easier in the snow. All I need is a hollow, and then I build the A-Frame over it. My spear is the longest component, at the top of the A-Frame. And the snow, being easy to stick branches into, does a great job of anchoring them. After that, all I have to do is dig snow out from underneath and lay it on the sides of my shelter. Since the two sides of my Shelter are open, being below the surface is much warmer.
I’m about three feet below the surface now. I lucked out and found two flat stones. I’ve got one on the ground at the end of my shelter, so that I can make a fire on top of it. I’ve got the other one standing upright behind it, keeping the snow behind it from melting and putting my fire out. With the space open above it, and all the shelter debris damp on top; it makes a sort of chimney.
It means my fire can be a lot smaller; and save some firewood. I took my socks off, and my toes are all black and blue. The snow is going to cost me my feet if I ever fail to warm them up in time.
I’m exhausted. I was walking for more than an hour; and I covered two hundred feet, if that. The snow is nearly waist-deep. This is going to take weeks, if I don’t starve to death. One more advantage to the snow shelter. I can observe. I’m practically invisible here.
Remember, the time you came to came to stay with me for a while? You noticed that I had so many different snack-foods around. Usually light snacks, (thank heaven for small mercies, or I'd be 200 pounds by now) but you asked why there was food stashed everywhere. I told you that I was a grazer. Looking for a way to kill eight minutes, go to the kitchen, stare into the fridge for a while.
I remember, you were horrified at that. Every time you saw me with food in my hand, you looked so... sorry for me.
You'd be laughing yourself stupid if you saw me now. I feel like I’m going through a cleanse. Once my phone died, I realized how long it’s been since I last went without it. I have spent the last half hour of daylight watching a bird sing. I stayed so still that the bird didn’t notice me. First time in ever that I’ve focused on one thing for longer than ten minutes. Either my Attention Span is changing, or I’m spacing out from stress and hunger.
Rationing is the smart move, and I'm only too glad to have food nearby when I wake up in the morning. But I have to admit, I'm still a boredom eater. Waiting out the night is not an active role. I try to keep my mind active, but I always seem to be aware of the rabbit meat.
Back when I was warm, about a million years ago, I used to chew the ice in my drinks. It was a habit that started when I was a kid. Drove my family nuts, hearing the crunch crunch.
I remember reading that it was good for me, helping lose weight. The body burns up more calories warming the body after the ice makes my insides cold, even if only for a little bit. But I can't just eat the snow directly. This isn't like an icecube in summer. This is going to peel the skin off my lips.
For two days now, I’ve been hearing the howling. There are wolves in these woods; which I knew. But knowing it from inside the Firewatch Station and knowing it in a snow shelter out in the wilderness are very different things. If a wolfpack finds me, odds are I won’t know it until they’re gnawing on my entrails.
And on that thought, I should try to get some sleep.
Well, I figured out a way to make cordage in winter. It suddenly hit me that some of these tree limbs I was picking up were willow, just like the trees you stripped the bark off to make cord. So I started experimenting. I have time to kill. Once the boughs had thawed out a little in my shelter, I used my knife to split the thin branch down the middle, and then do it again with each half. Then I bent the quarters over on themselves.
The bark didn’t snap, but the wood did, so instead of peeling the bark away from the wood, I’m peeling the wood off the bark. The inner layer of the bark is near impossible to pull apart against the grain. I’ve spent a few hours reconstructing the fine art of making cord by hand. You taught me well, Chloe. And it helped, having something to do with my hands until feeling came back to my toes.
So, I’ve created four feet of cord. And more importantly, I’ve learned how to do it. Which means I can make more whenever I stop. Making this shelter should be a lot easier and faster if I can lash the frame together.
Or maybe I should use it for hunting. Four feet is long enough for a bow; though I’ve never fired one in my life. Scratch that. I’d have to make arrows too. But on the subject of hunting, I’ve identified what I believe is another rabbit trail. Once my socks dry out, I’ll go and set snares.
Raccoon. Not rabbit. On the plus side, my cordage works. The cord I wove is strong enough to strangle something without breaking. So, tonight’s rabbit stew includes some raccoon meat.
I guess-timate that I covered another mile today; which is good time for me. The trees are amazingly good at closing in. I often go for hours without being able to see more than five feet in front of me. I was using the sun to navigate, but it’s not good; because this far north, it doesn’t go in a straight line; so much as curve across the horizon. Fortunately, the Firewatch Station is still in view; so it’s my guide.
In my shelter, with my fire, it almost feels like being back home. Dark outside, lit inside. Cold outside, warm in here. Well, less arctic. With the fire, I can keep working on things with the sun down. There’s no way to keep the fire alive all night and sleep at the same time; but you can’t have everything.
I remember I was coming up here because I was having trouble dealing. I told you about my dad. We knew the tumor was going to get him sooner or later. But it could have been five years from now. Or it could have been a year sooner than it was.
Liz thought I was coming up here because I didn’t want to face up to dad dying. It wasn’t that. It was that it was so unpredictable. We knew it was going to happen, and
Writing that just now, something dawned on me. That’s been my life since Diablo first got a good whiff of me. If it’s not the wreck, it’s the cold, or the animals, or the hunger. I had so much trouble dealing with the unexpected way it happened to dad; but out here in the woods, I’m dealing. The dice keep rolling, over and over, and sooner or later they’ll come up Snake Eyes for me. Possibly in the form of actual snakes.
Chloe, you always said the Valley was therapeutic. I hope you’re right. My life depends on it. So does my death, come to that. The wilderness has kept me warm and fed; but it’s also trying to starve me to death and freeze me solid at the same time.
A Note From The Author: I hope you're all enjoying 'Dear Chloe' in its serialised format. If you'd like to read the whole thing at once, and take it with you, you can buy the whole book here in eBook and Paperback Format.