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.