Chloe was done chopping firewood for the day. The fog had cleared up late in the morning, pulling back like a curtain to show the frozen lake; and Chloe gave it a look out of habit. Her calendar said it would be safe to start ice fishing in a few more days. The blizzard had kept her housebound, and used up most of her firewood, so she’d had to go further out to replace her stock.
And then she saw the smoke. There was a thin column of smoke drawing a line straight up from somewhere across the lake. Surprised, Chloe tried to peer into the distance, but couldn’t make it out. Intrigued, and just starting to wonder; she set down the firewood, and the axe, sprinting back to the cabin, as best she could on her snowshoes. The cabin was out of sight of the lake; so once she collected her binoculars, she had to hurry back to that spot.
The binoculars were powerful enough that she could see the bonfire, just barely; left burning on the far side of the lake.
No, can’t be. Chloe thought in awe. If it was Sam, he’d be right next to the fire, trying to wave at me…
She scanned around a little, and caught a glimpse of something large, and tan-colored.Cougar!
The cougar was padding across the lake, away from the bonfire. Feeling a chill, Chloe scanned in front of it; and saw a figure plodding across the ice; unaware of the predator hunting it. An unmistakably human figure.
“SAM!” Chloe shouted in disbelief. Her yell sent a dozen birds and animals into flight, squawking and yowling in surprise. Chloe was normally a quiet presence. She dropped her binoculars instantly; running for all she was worth to her cabin. She collected her weapons and then rushed to the ATV.
Chloe’s ATV had snow-skids on it for winter; and she knew this part of the Valley like the back of her hand. She rarely used the ATV, even in winter; but this time seconds counted. She took the drifts too fast to be safe; and the sudden lurches nearly threw her a few times; but she didn’t care; opening the throttle as fast as she dared.
When she hit the lake; she made it almost thirty feet; before the weight of it cracked the ice enough to dig a trench into the frozen surface. It nearly threw Chloe over the handlebars as she lost her momentum. Chloe gunned the throttle again, which only dug the tracks deeper, throwing snow and frost up behind her.
Cursing under her breath, Chloe leaned on the horn; sending up a flare of noise. “SAM!”
“Chloe!” Sam’s voice shouted back. He was barely visible, with snow and distance between them; but their voices carried in the still air, echoing over the ice.
“SAM! BEHIND YOU!” Chloe shouted as loud as she could, and snatched up her weapon; abandoning the ATV and running.
It took her almost five minutes, half trying to sprint in snowshoes, half walking fast to keep up her stamina. But she got close enough to see Sam and the Cougar had closed in, circling each other. Sam had a bow drawn, aiming at the Cat. The Cougar was already in a crouch, ready to pounce.
Chloe brought up the rifle and worked the bolt. She was too far away to actually hit anything; and she knew it. She had hopes of scaring the Cougar off with a shot, but at this range, she had no idea if she’d hit Sam by accident.
And then the Cougar lunged. Chloe saw Sam release the arrow; and it missed; but the Cougar was on him before Sam could notch another.
Chloe fired anyway. She hadn't used the rifle in over two months; though she’d kept it maintained. She’d forgotten how loud a gunshot could be.
The cougar jerked, knowing the sound. Chloe worked the bolt-action, and kept running. The Cougar knew there were two of them now, and reared back as Sam tried to lash out with something. The Cat slashed back with a paw the size of Sam’s head; and knocked the man hard against the ice.
By this time, Chloe was closer; and lined up a better shot. The rifle cracked, and the bullet hit its target. Chloe could see blood dripping into the snow; but wasn’t sure where it was coming from.
The Cougar pounced back, all four paws spread out flat on the ice. The ice was solid enough to carry a person on foot. An ATV was just barely staying above water. A cougar had snowshoes of its own…
But the math had changed with Chloe’s arrival; and the wily predator knew it, his remaining golden eye gazing at Sam, then back to Chloe; before he turned and slunk off into the snow. He was moving smoothly enough that Chloe knew her shot hadn’t done much damage, beyond scaring the predator away.
Chloe kept the gun aimed at the Cat until it was out of sight, sidling over next to Sam, who was barely moving. “Sam? Talk to me!”
“Uhh.” Sam groaned out. “Before I forget, I wanted to thank you for inviting me up here. It’s been quite a vacation.” He tried to smile for her… and promptly passed out.
Chloe had to drag Sam back across the lake as best she could. When she reached her ATV, she panicked, because the ice had reformed around the treads, and the thing was so lopsided that she was certain that a little bit of it was underwater.
“Sam?” Chloe pressed him. “Sam, if you can hear me, I’m afraid it’s going to be a bit longer. If I try and put both of us on this thing, the weight will send it the rest of the way through the ice.”
And so she had to drag him further.
“I should have made the sledge.” Sam drawled.
She nearly dropped him, startled. “You’re awake! Good. Can you tell me what day it is?”
“Ummm… Day forty five? Forty eight?”
“Right. Been a while since you saw a calendar, huh?” Chloe shook her head. “Something else… What’s your sister’s name?”
“Beth. Liz. ‘lizabe’h. Lizzie.”
“Good enough.” Chloe put her shoulders down and devoted everything she had into forward momentum. “Babe, once I get you to the shore, this gets harder. You’ll slide better on ice than you will on land. If that Cougar’s got a taste for you, I don’t dare leave you alone while I go for my First Aid Kit; which means I have to make something I can use to drag you all the way to the cabin.”
“I got a bedroll.” Sam croaked.
Chloe looked back and noticed his bindle, left behind where he was knocked down. “Okay. Once I get you to shore, I’ve gotta go back for your stuff.” She told him. “I can turn your bedroll into stretcher for you; and get… you… Sam? Sam!”
He was out again. His skin was an unhealthy shade. In a hurry now, Chloe turned to sprint back out onto the ice… and noticed she’d left a trail of his blood as she dragged him. The Cougar had wounded him somewhere.
Sam woke up, feeling warm. He was wrapped in flannel blankets and furs that were scented vaguely like her; and he was weirdly comfortable. He realized suddenly that he was in a bed; and his eyes opened. When he tried to move, his limbs rebelled; and he settled back with a groan.
He was in Chloe’s cabin. He knew that instantly. Having built his own shelter, he suddenly saw the work she’d put into it. A modestly sized log cabin, with walls a foot thick, and a high A-Frame roof, with her ‘bedroom’ loftspace looking over the main room. The living area was a single large room with a stone fireplace and lumber walls, floor, and ceiling. There was a bearskin rug that Chloe admitted her uncle had bought in Anchorage; and a kitchenette in the space below her loft, with cast-iron pots and skillets. A large iron wood-stove for cooking dominated the kitchenette, and shelves of glass and ceramic jars lined the walls, full of preserves.
Sam fought to stand, and got a proper look. His clothes were left nearby, and he dressed quickly. His clothing was foul and damp; but so were the fraying jeans he was wearing, (not his own) and he had nothing else on hand.
He saw Chloe sitting cross-legged on the rug, a level below him. She was examining the gear from his trek. The cordage he’d woven, the adze he’d made and sharpened…
“You taught me well.” He called with a croak.
She looked up sharply and scrambled up the narrow steps to his side. “You’re awake! That’s good.” She held up a hand. “Follow my finger.”
For a moment, she did some diagnostic tests; checking him for concussion and brain damage; then checking his pulse and pupil response. “You’re okay.” She pronounced as she finished. But her eyes stayed on him, tearing up a bit. “You’re okay.” She said again, but this time she was reassuring herself.
Sam held his arms open, and she didn’t hesitate to meet him in a big hug. She felt the tremors running through him. It wasn’t fever. It wasn’t shock or trauma. It was something far deeper. He hadn’t seen another person’s face, or heard someone’s voice in over a month. And he’d spent all that time fighting for his life. Chloe let the hug go on for as long as he wanted. Finally, he pulled back enough to look at her. “How’d you find me?”
“I spotted that bonfire you used as a guide.” She told him. “Lucky timing, really. If it was an hour sooner; the fog would have been thick enough for me not to see the smoke. Ten minutes later and…”
“You would have found me, just as the Cougar was picking his teeth clean.” Sam shivered hard under her fingers.
She pulled him in tightly again. She just couldn’t stop herself. The near-miss was fresh in her mind too. “I found one of your shelters. If you’d left an arrow pointing the way you were going, I’d have found you weeks ago.” She said softly, stroking his hair.
Sam squeezed his eyes shut. “See, now if I was smart, I’d have thought of that. Honestly, I didn’t think you were looking for me. I figured you’d wait at the Depot. I figured you’d think I didn’t beat the snow in; and turned back.”
“I remember.” She nodded. “And you were right. I figured you had turned back. But when I went back weeks later to top off my ATV, I stopped by the pass and found your Jeep. What was left of it anyway. So I went back to the Station; to see if I could get the radio working.”
“I tried for a week; and I’m the electrical engineer.” Sam excused. “Lightning does a better job of trashing something than we can of fixing it.”
“Mm.” Chloe made an agreeable noise. “I went looking for you; but I was on an ATV; and the places you were going couldn’t be reached on wheels or treads. Plus, the Depot was the only refueling spot, so I had to search in circles that came back to there. And by the time I even knew you were in trouble, it was weeks.”
“And you figured I’d never survive that long?” Sam grinned. “I’m more than a little amazed myself.”
“No. Well, yes; but that’s not why I stopped looking.” Chloe whispered. “I stopped, because… Because I found your ‘last stand’.”
Sam blinked over her shoulder. “What?”
“I found my Uncle’s spare cold-weather jacket; ripped to shreds and covered in a fair-sized amount of blood. I found your note at the Station, and figured you’d taken some of his clothes to keep warm.”
“I did, but the Jacket…” Sam said, and his eyes widened as he realized. “The wolves. The wolves picked up the scent of some meat I had hunted, and had ripped into my shelter for them. I was up a tree at the time, and my shelter was trashed; along with everything in it. The jacket was beyond repair, and the meat had all been torn up and eaten.”
“I found lots of wolf tracks, a few bloody meat chunks, and a clear sign that it was you.” Chloe nodded. “I figured all that blood was yours. No body, but I figured nothing could leave that much gore behind and live.”
“You didn’t find my footprints?”
“I tried tracking, but the snow was moving in, and the bloody paw-prints only went so far before I lost them… I thought you were dead.”
“Amazing. We must have just missed each other.” Sam reached out and held her hand tightly. “The wolves never got near me. I was hiding up a tree by then. Truth be told, the only thing that got within biting range of me this whole time…”
“That Cougar. Yeah, I saw some of his prints around your Jeep.”
“He’s been tracking me for more than a month; and I wish I knew why.” Sam shook his head. “Cougar attacks on humans aren’t common. Are they?”
“Nearly unheard of, in fact.” Chloe confirmed. “They’re too skittish in a straight up fight. This one must be in a bad way.” Her eyes slowly moved, unbidden; to the rifle mounted on the wall. “And if an animal has a history of attacking humans…”
“You’re going after the Demon Cat, aren’t you?” Sam croaked. “If you are, I wanna help.”
“We’re not in top form for a hunting expedition. I’ve got four bullets left for that thing; and can only fire one round at a time. You’re injured. My ATV is stuck in the ice; and we don’t have any means of communication outside the Valley.”
“If you plan to walk out…”
“I know.” Chloe sighed. “My plane would be the better bet; and it’s not due back until…” She trailed off. “Yes. I plan to go after the Cougar. They say when a bear eats human, it won’t eat anything else. I never knew for sure if that was just an Urban Legend; and I have no idea if the same is true of Cougars; because I’ve never heard of a cougar killing a human in the wild before. If it’s crazed enough to keep stalking you, then we don’t dare let it alone.”
“No arguments here. That thing’s beaten my brains out three times now.” Sam croaked. He suddenly realized he couldn’t stay balanced properly, and looked down at his feet; blinking owlishly; like he was trying to process what he was seeing. His left foot was bandaged tightly; and he could feel his pulse pounding in the toes, getting more and more painful. Chloe watched him flex experimentally, and then look the question to her.
“I couldn’t save them.” Chloe whispered. “I tried everything to warm them up again; but your second and third toe wouldn’t lose the black. It was remove them, or risk necrosis spreading. And that’s beyond my talents to reverse. I tried to warn you, but you were completely out of it; delirious. Turned out to be a blessing. You didn’t even wake up as I stitched up… the…” She looked away from his eyes. “It only takes minutes for frostbite to get a grip. I dragged you back here as fast as I could, but it still took an hour, and the fever had already set in.” She looked more miserable than he did. “I had no choice.”
Sam shook his head. “I know. To be honest, I’m amazed I managed to stay ahead of frostbite this long.”
“I’m amazed you stayed alivethis long.” Chloe breathed. “Either the cold, or the damage from those claws gave you a fever. I’m betting exhaustion and malnutrition didn’t help. I’ve been pouring sips of broth into you as best I could for almost two days; and I don’t think you were even aware of me doing it. Your fever finally broke around dawn this morning.”
“Two days? Explains why I need the bathroom.” He was already looking to the stairs.
“You are in no shape to try walking until that foot heals a bit more.” Chloe told him sharply. “I’ll get you a jar, or-”
He was already halfway down the stairs, leaning heavily on the wall.
“Okay.” She gave chase, rolling her eyes a bit. “For the record, you won the bet. You can definitely handle my life better than I can handle yours.”
“At least mine doesn’t have cougars.” Sam coughed. “You think I could get privacy enough to have a quick wash?”
“Privacy? I’m the one who stitched you up.” Chloe smirked. “Those clothes were torn, and your foot wasn’t the only place the ice had gotten to you. How your legs didn’t fall off I’ll never understand, the shape those pants were in.” She gestured to his clothes and smothered a grin. “Deciding to hike through waist-deep snow, while going commando? Brave soul.”
Sam turned bright pink; and he put a hand to his face. “Oh. Feels like my fever is back.” He joked weakly.
“I’m so glad you’re alive!” She laughed, and wrapped him up in a hug again. It went on for several moments. “Sam?” She said in his ear finally. “You reallysmell bad.”
Sam laughed, despite himself, and broke the hug. “I haven’t had a shower in over a month. Scrubbed in the lake here and there.” He gestured at the bandage. “Which probably didn’t help the frostbite.”
“Mm. I tried everything I could to warm those feet up, but you were past the point of no return.” Chloe went to her kitchenette and started pulling out her largest crockery.
Sam gestured at her crockery. “You have way more big cast-iron pots than I thought.”
“Cast Iron is pretty efficient. Lasts forever, especially compared to teflon, and doesn’t blink when put on an open campfire flame.” Chloe told him. “Besides, when I make my preserves in glass jars, I have to boil them up. The oversized cast-iron crockery is some of the most useful gear I have.”
“I know I would have had a much better time of it with a fireproof kettle.” Sam agreed. “But I don’t think the toes will grow back, no matter how warm you get my feet.”
Chloe laughed. “Well, I have made one small addition to my little setup since you were here last: I added a bath-house.”
“It’s a small hut. A tepee really, but it keeps the ice out, and you can heat some stones enough to keep the room steamy; like a sauna. I set up a camp tub in there, and…” She chuckled at the blatant hunger on his face. “I haven’t rigged my solar water heater yet, so it’ll take a while to heat up enough water. Do your best to keep that bandage dry; I’ll change it when you get out. There’s already a towel and change of clothes in there.” She gestured at him, head to toe. “You’ve been sweating out your fever for two days. My stuff isn’t really your size; but it’ll be enough to let thoseclothes get a wash.”
Chloe had set her largest pots to boil. Sam limped down to the bath-house to start a fire in the sauna fireplace, which was made of stones, stacked in a circle. Sam built a fire with some hardwoods, and left it to burn down, as Chloe set up her bathtub for him. It was a camping tub, made of strong, waterproof canvas; in a rectangular folding frame. It was long enough for one person to recline in. By the time the water was boiling, the smaller fire in the bath-house was down to coals; which was perfect for putting out more heat than smoke.
“Outside, on the way, I was scared to take a whizz behind a tree. I was scared it’d freeze too fast.” Sam commented to Chloe.
“Good instinct.” Chloe quipped. “You don’t want to get frostbite when your pants are down.” She waved at a thermometer against the wall. “That’s why I keep that in here all the time now.” She tossed a handful of snow into the fireplace coals to create instant steam. “Enjoy. Try not to dehydrate from the sauna. You’ve been sweating for a while. Get clean. Get warm. I’ll bring water as soon as I get your clothes soaking.”
The bath was the single most wanton act of self-indulgence that Sam had ever had. He actually felt guilty about having such blatant excess; after weeks of bare necessity. The freshest scars blazed in the hot water, but his muscles rejoiced. The water was hot for a good hour, and then a thermos topped up the heat for a while longer. Chloe wasn’t wrong about dehydration, and he started feeling dizzy with the steam after a while.
He came back to the cabin, feeling human. Even like a civilised human, fresh from the city. It was a transition he wasn’t sure he liked, actually enjoying the cold as he limped the fifty yards back to Chloe.
She changed the bandage, and he noticed his clothes hanging by the fireplace, drying out. The fabric had worn thin enough in some places that Sam could see through it. It had been a nearer thing than he liked to think about.
Her woven tunics and buckskin trousers were large enough for him; or at least they were now. She saw the abrasions that had mostly healed; the ugly scars that were still red and angry; the mottled bruises that would take weeks to fade away…, and the unquestioning proof that he had been stripped down by hunger and effort. The muscles under his damaged skin were apparent now. He was battle-scarred, and remade; like everything unnecessary had been stripped or beaten away. He looked forged, like he’d been made into something strong and wiry.
With one exception.She observed to herself as put her first aid kit away. “Your hair looks a little lopsided. Beard too.”
“I… used some of it as tinder, once or twice.” Sam confessed; and Chloe laughed delightedly. “Hey, don’t knock it. Easier to find and dry out than leaves.”
“No, not laughing.” Chloe held her hands up. “I go back to town once a month; and sometimes I get a haircut while I’m there. Every time I see them sweeping up the trimmings, I wonder how many fishing lures, or how many campfires I could make out of it. Nature of the life; looking at something and wondering how best not to waste it.”
“Speaking of, is that my phone?” Sam gestured over at the bench.
Chloe nodded. “My solar panel makes enough juice to run all the lights, my radio; and the deep freeze. I don’t even need that for about five months out of the year; thanks to mother nature. I found your phone in the Station; and brought it back with me. It’s charged up, but I haven’t switched it on. It’s not mine, after all.”
“Couldn’t get past the pin-code?” He teased.
“Why couldn’t you just use 1-2-3-4like a normal person?” She quipped right back.
Sam had asked to shift to the hammock he’d used the last time he stayed with her, but Chloe shook her head, insisting he stay put as much as possible. Even so, he needed to move around, at least a little; and they worked together to get him up and down the stairs. She noticed that even with one bad leg, he was a lot more graceful and sure-footed than she’d ever seen him.
He paced a little around her cabin on his good leg while she changed the beddings. He’d been sweating out his fever for a while; and they both felt the need to keep their shared den neat.
Sam eased himself down into a chair, and moaned. “A chair. Imagine the extravagance.” He hummed. “Chloe, I’ve improvised Shelters, a fireplace, and beds. I haven’t had a chair since leaving The Station.” He rolled his head to look at her. “I understand why you kept trying not to laugh, last summer. A year ago, I left this cabin with a pack full of chocolate bar wrappers. What a piggish joke I was.”
“For the record, I loved those chocolates.” Chloe said smartly as she came down from her loft to join him. “And also for the record, you are my friend. You were never a joke to me.”
“Not to you, Chlo’. To me.” He hummed a bit as his eyes drooped, still low on energy. “I’m sorry it took so much for me to get the point.”
He was already dozing, and Chloe gently arranged his bandaged foot to make him more comfortable, throwing a blanket over him gently. For a moment, tucking it around his shoulders, she found herself stroking his long hair. The wave of affection that went through her was unexpected, and a lot stronger than she’d ever felt before.
She shook it off and went to her kitchen, pulling down one of the large jars full of whole apples; peeled and cored.
Sam woke up and sniffed. “What smells so good?”
“Baked sugar apples. You usually cook them in tinfoil, but of course, I don’t have any.” Chloe was carefully navigating two small ceramic pots, tipping a whole apple into a bowl from one of them; and then doing the same with the other; a cloud of sweet-smelling steam rising. “It’s an old camping favorite of my mom’s.” She told him. “You core out an apple; and fill it with butter and brown sugar; then you bake it in a fire until it’s cooked through. The butter and sugar melt into the apple; and it’s the most amazing, sugary thing you’ll ever taste. I haven’t made one in almost six years; but for a conquering hero like you…”
“Sounds amazing.” Sam agreed. “I haven’t tasted ‘sweet’ since the first week.”
“Mm. Too bad you didn’t get marooned in the summer, babe. You’d have been able to forage all kinds of things.” She pushed a bowl and fork at him, and he took his first bite gingerly, the apple still piping hot.
She had fed him dessert first, but then came the meal. Thick slices of crusty sourdough bread; venison and taters with sliced vegetables; and thick, rich gravy. She had homebrew that tasted amazing; and afterward she brought them both wild honeycomb; dipped in jams and berry preserves.
She had a table; but they ate on the floor before the fire, reclining on the soft, thick furs. She stoked the fireplace; and Sam was unable to finish, pushing the plate away. “Oof.” He said. “First time I can remember when I wasn’t able to finish a meal.”
Chloe giggled. “I’m sorry, I know it’s over the top. I thought you were dead, Sam. I have to ‘bring out the fattened calf’, here.”
“Ohno, definitely not complaining. I just don’t think I’ve had this much food on hand in a million years.”
“Or fifty days.”
“Which feels like the same thing.” He yawned heavily.
“You’re still in recovery.” She said swiftly. “Did you want to try the stairs again; or should I make you a nest down here by the fire?”
He was already asleep. Smiling a bit, she arranged the pillows behind him a little to ease his reclining position. She stoked the fire again, and gathered another blanket around him. Outside, she could hear the wind howling; and the familiar sound of snowflakes rapping against the walls of her cabin.
“Mm?” He was roused from his doze as she tucked padding around his bandaged foot. “Oh. I should help.”
She pushed him back gently. “Sleep.” She directed quietly. “We’ll make our plans in the morning.”
Sam nodded, and she turned to go. He caught her wrist without opening his eyes. Chloe regarded him for a long moment, as if weighing her options; before she stretched out alongside him, warm and gentle. His arm went around her instantly, pulling the blanket along; and they stayed like that for the rest of the night, without a word being spoken.
Chloe woke up and the first thing she heard was his heartbeat. Memory caught up before her eyes were open, and she stayed put, in no rush to move at all. She felt his breathing hitch as she settled deeper; and knew he was awake. He’s probably been awake for a while,She thought sleepily. And just kept still to let me sleep longer.
She opened one eye and saw he was looking out the window. Her bed was in the loftspace, with the triangle of the roof above. Usually, she could overlook the whole cabin from her ‘bedroom’. But her loft also had a window. Outside, it was daylight; and snowing. From their spot here, Sam could see up to the loft, and out the window. Fat, heavy snowflakes that would bury the world; but there wasn’t a breath of wind. In the cold, eternal silence outside; the only sound within was their warm breathing; and steady hearts beating in unison from the proximity.
“I was out there a week ago; after a good hunt.” He said softly to her. “I remember thinking that I suddenly knew why animals hibernate in winter.”
“Mm.” She agreed; pulling the blanket up tighter around them. The chill had settled into her cabin as the fire had burned low; but under the blanket they were warm and cosy. “When you were up here last summer; it was warm enough to leave you in the hammock. I would have let you share the blanket, except you’d have taken it as a blatant invitation.”
“I would have.” Sam agreed. “I think I know better now. If one of those wolfpacks had offered to let me bunk with them a month ago; I was cold enough to risk waking up as a breakfast snack.”
Chloe chuckled a little. “You’ve changed, Sam.”
“I think I like it.” She decided. “What about you?”
“I’m still deciding.”
She sighed and closed her eyes. “Go back to sleep. We’ve got all the time in the world.”
Sam woke up an hour or two later. He could hear the fireplace going, and smell coffee brewing. She’d left a carved walking stick beside him; with a deep lacquered finish. He was able to get himself upright, though his foot was starting to throb violently.
She was waiting with painkillers; and changed his bandages again. All without a word being exchanged. With the bandages replaced; she produced a pair of scissors. She didn’t even have to ask; saying it with a gesture. Trust me?
He nodded immediately, and she whipped one of the dirty sheets from the day before around his shoulders; giving him a haircut. He was vividly aware of her proximity. The one thing he hadn’t been able to improvise was company. She smelled like the woods in summer.
Then the blades of the scissors scraped shut beside his ear, and his breath caught.
“Shh.” She said, aware of his tension. “It’s okay. I won’t hurt you.”
“I know.” He said, and despite himself, there was a tremor in his voice. “It’s been a while since I’ve even talked to anyone, let alone...”
Chloe filled in the rest of that sentence for him. Let alone have someone gently run their fingers through my hair. “I understand. Believe me. When I first moved up here, my mother was convinced I’d come running home within a week, screaming for someone to hug me.” She said quietly in his ear. “It wasn’t quite that bad; but I did want for someone to talk to, sometimes. Only when I had something to say. But then days turned into weeks; and then months… The things I had to talk about suddenly seemed less interesting. How could they not? My life has a routine, just like anyone else’s.”
“Mm. And as you move from being ‘too busy’ to be lonely, to ‘too used to it’, it just gets… easier. And harder, too; I guess.” He smiled a bit. “When I was hiking to the Station, back at the start of all this; I went cross-country. There was a spot where I crossed the only road in the Valley. I swear this is true: After a week of not seeing a single human being, I hit the road… and I still looked both ways before crossing the street.”
She chuckled. “When I went back to civilization for the first time after I finished building this cabin? I couldn’t handle it. All the people, all talking about things I had no knowledge of; obsessing over things that were gibberish to me.” She moved beside him to even out the trim, and he leaned into the hand resting on his neck. “It was like I was on another planet. Like they weren’t even my species anymore.”
“That include me, Chloe?” He asked, not unkindly.
She pulled the sheet away, and handed him the scissors. “I’ll get you a razor.” She said, evading the question.
“The adze was my first attempt at tool-making.” Sam told her, as she examined the tool carefully. “Took me a few tries to get the thing secured; but it saved my life more than once. I was able to hack through a tree as wide as a baseball bat in about three minutes.”
“Good work.” Chloe said sincerely. “These arrows, though. They look bone-tipped.”
“They are. Well, the first one was, anyway. I was able to file down an edge and a point on an elk antler. It made preparing a hunted animal much easier than using a sharp rock. But once I made it to the Station and got an actual knife…”
“Yeah, about that…” Chloe picked up the knife and ran the ball of her thumb along the edge. “This thing is blunt as a spoon.”
“It wasn’t when I found it. I’ve been using it a lot more than I would in a kitchen.” Sam allowed. “But it saved my life.”
“I don’t know. I’ve seen the stuff you improvised. It’d take a lot more practice, but you’d have persevered.”
“I’d have had to, wouldn’t I?”
Chloe moved on to the fish trap he’d woven. “Large. Too large for a lot of the fish that would wriggle out.”
“Smaller fish weren’t worth catching. Besides, by then; I had the slingshot, and the Beaver.”
“Mm. I was able to save your pelts; tied up in your ripped shoes. Were you trying to make socks?”
“Trying to add a layer to my ruined footwear. What happened to my toes did not come as a surprise.” Sam shook his head. “I spent a day trying to turn those pelts into some moccasins, but I just couldn’t get the seams to stay together.”
“You needed sinew. Makes excellent sewing thread for pelts.” Chloe gestured over to the wall, where her supply was stored.
“I knew the word, but… Well…”
“I never showed you that part, did I?” Chloe nodded. “You still need shoes. I’m afraid you won’t fit my boots. Let me take these pelts, I’ll make you some footwear.”
He held up a hand. “Um, actually… I was the one that got those pelts. I know it’s probably faster and easier for you to just do it for me, but...” Sam gave a small smile. “I would like to finish the job myself, if I only knew how.”
“I can teach you.” Chloe smiled and squeezed his hand. “We should get to work.”
She had some rabbit pelts, and decided to show him how she made mittens; while he got to work on his moccasins. “You got the measurements right.” She confirmed. “What’s left is sewing. The clamps will help with that. You were smart to only have one seam that needed stitching.”
“I just couldn’t get it to stay tight.”
“Mm. The sewing needle and the thread you use is the difference.”
“Later on, maybe you can show me how to harvest sinew?”
Chloe smothered a smile. “This, from the man who gagged over gutting a fish, let alone something cute and furry.”
“I was different then.” Sam said with grim understatement. “But I want to know how. I… I want to know that I can. I want to be able to finish this.” He wasn’t talking about the moccasins, and they both knew it.
“Alright. I’ll show you.” She promised. “Also, you should know that you also tan the hides with a paste you can make mushing their brains with some water.”
Sam rolled his eyes. “Of course you do.”
Chloe left him to it after a few minutes; and went back outside. She returned with more firewood, and set her rifle back on the rack above the mantle. “The ATV is still stuck in the ice. It’ll be getting thicker, of course. When it’s thick enough, I’ll go down there; try to get it loose. If I go digging around now, I’m liable to send it to the bottom of the lake, and myself with it.”
“I’ll help you.” Sam promised.
She came over and rested her hands on his shoulders, almost automatically; peering over him at his work. “Not bad. You’ve got the stitches nice and tight.”
“Does it pass muster?”
“I’m not grading you. If you do it right, you’ll have warm, dry feet.” Chloe said blithely. “As you’ve already lost two toes, I doubt my approval will motivate you any more than that.”
Sam ran a finger along the seam. “What about here at the heel?”
“That’ll be trickier. You’ll have to sew the whole section shut, up against the heel. Add a second layer of something to reinforce. Remember, you want all the fur to be stuffed right inside. If it sticks out through the seams, the moisture gets in; and the finished product has a particularly weak link where it’ll start to tear.” She still had her hands on his shoulders, and she suddenly realized it. “Anyway. For dinner tonight, we have roasted Caribou, wrapped in bannock, with pickled artichokes and baked taters. Think of it as the Yukon’s answer to Beef Wellington.”
“Sounds far too posh for a guy who did victory laps over Beaver Stew.” Sam observed. “Chloe, be honest. Do you eat like this all the time?”
Chloe giggled. “I spend all year gathering, hunting, and otherwise storing food for winter. Being snowed in is the only time I get to be creative while I cook, and you already cost me three weeks.”
He held his hands up in surrender. “Fine. I’ll eat like a pig and not complain. But only because I really care about you.” He gestured. “The clay pots you make are sealed, but a lot of your preserves are in the reused glass jars. Which kind do you use for your larder?”
“Both. I can make the clay containers for myself here. But the glass ones are more versatile. Less likely to absorb moisture than clay, y’know?”
“The days are getting shorter.” Sam observed.
“This far north, a lot of day is twilight.” Chloe said. She had brought her futon mattress down to the ground floor; and set up the bed in front of the fireplace; so that he wouldn’t have to navigate the stairs. “By the way; I’m sorry about before.”
“What do you mean?” Sam asked; and swiftly realized. “Oh. The bit about being from ‘another planet’?”
Chloe nodded ruefully. “Yeah, it included you. Now, much less so.” She admitted. “Sorry, if that’s…”
“No, I agree with you, oddly enough. Somewhere over the last few weeks; I suddenly realized I could barely remember what my old apartment looked like.” He shook his head, as if amused by himself. “My rent is automatically deducted from my account. I live alone. My vacation days would have run out, and my boss would have fired me for non-attendance eventually; and a few months after that, my landlord would rent the place out. Removing me from my own life is remarkably easy.”
“Civilization is an elegant system, except that nobody really knows how it all works.” Chloe observed. “It’s so… alien to my world. I stayed with you for a few weeks. It was entertaining. It was interesting; but it didn’t feel like real life.”
“Exactly how I felt last summer. I was thinking about what you said, early on; about how you were probably the last person in the world to know about 9/11.” Sam commented. “For all I know, something a lot worse happened by Day Two after the accident. When I got to that Firewatch Station, and there was nobody there; I could have been on the moon, for all other people were worth.”
Chloe smirked. “Well, that’s funny; because the other day I was thinking about what you said last summer, about how some of the animals out here would live longer if they had a vet close by.”
“What a moronic thing for me to say. I’ve eaten a number of those animals now.”
“No, see; that’s the thing.” Chloe put a hand up. “Because I’ve changed that bandage on your foot half a dozen times. Unlike cloth; I can’t just wash the bandages out and reuse them. I have enough; but if your foot wasn’t healing so well… Living solo like this only works as long as everything about it works. If I needed regular medication…” She gestured at his bandaged foot. “Or treatment for something serious, my life is suddenly a great deal more fragile than it should be. If that Cougar had jumped me while I was alone up here; I wouldn’t even have a radio. Or my plane.”
“You’ve never seemed to need other people before.”
“I know. It’s not that I’m anti-social, or that I hate people. I have no problem with people at all. I just… Like my life. I like my life; and it works for me, and it’s easier to live without an audience. For me, people are like chocolate. Quite lovely, in small doses. Less enjoyable once you have to deal with the garbage they leave behind.”
Sam chuckled a bit at that. It was the first time she had heard laughter in a long while, so she found herself smiling widely. Then he snorted accidentally, which just made him crack up laughing; and Chloe found she was joining in.
The laugh between them grew louder, stronger; and finally tearful. After a while, it started to fade out, and she was left giving him an earnest look. “Sam, ever since I found your Jeep; I haven’t been able to stop thinking about how we left things, last time.”
He looked up sharply. “Yeah?”
Chloe traced his now clean-shaven face with one finger. “I know you were interested, last summer. I wasn’t. Not like that. I just wanted someone to talk to for a while.”
Sam saw she had tears in her eyes; flat out gazing at him. Last time, they had talked about picking up hints, in a life where words weren’t all that common. Sam was different now, and had learned a lot about anticipating which way something was about to move. A predator, a potential meal… a potential mate. Chloe was telling him that something had changed since they last saw each other. “I’m okay.” He promised her softly.
“I know.” She said softly. “But I thought you were dead. And I did not like that feeling. Not one bit. The strange thing is, I really wanted to talk to youabout it.”
“That’s not strange at all.” Sam caught her hand. “When I was out there, you were the only one I wanted to talk to.” He gestured over at his journal. “I did talk to you, after a fashion.”
Chloe looked at the notebook, chewing her lip. “Yeah. In the interests of full disclosure, I should tell you… I may have flicked through that journal while you were feverish. You were kind of rambling in your sleep. I wanted to see if there was anything in there that could help.”
“Well…” Sam drawled. “It’s all addressed to you.”
It’s been a while since we’ve ‘spoken’. Long story short, I made it. After three days, Chloe and I have settled into a routine, not that far off from the one we had last summer. Less foraging, more resting; which is more than perfect after the last few months.
I’m getting better on my bad leg, but Chloe found the ruins of one of my shelters; and as a result has responded to the ‘still alive’ news by treating me like I’m made of glass. I can live with that, as there are plenty of chores to do inside. She even rescued my phone from the Station. Her solar panel has little to do during winter except keep a light on, so she even charged it for me. I have repaid that act of kindness by unlocking it and playing DJ for a while. I loaded a hundred shows and movies onto this thing, and we haven’t watched one yet. The fireplace is entertainment enough.
We still have the music, though. It’s funny, but I always had music going in my apartment, without ever stopping to listen to it completely. Chloe just gives herself over to the tune; eyes closed, head back.
Same deal with my old kindle. She still has it after last summer. Did I tell you that I left it with her? In a place where she’s 500 miles from wi-fi, it’s not like I have to worry about her hacking my account. She had me read to her the other night. Almost an hour went by like that, with her sewing something by the fire, and me reading to her from ‘The Secret Garden’. I remember mom loved that book. Chloe does too.
I’ve done my best not to take up too much of her supplies, but it’s got to be a factor. The bandage on my foot gets checked every day, and I’m a whole other mouth to feed. Her preserves are amazing, and more than enough to live on. She still forages, and I never know what she’s going to come back with. Some days it’s berries to be mixed into a stew; some days it’s tree bark to be ground into flour. She doesn’t have a food processor, so I make myself useful whenever I can.
She hasn’t said
“Hey, can I ask… How bad isit, having me here?” Sam asked suddenly, setting his journal aside. “Tell me the truth.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve been living on rations for almost two months. You can’t go down the grocery store any more than I could. I came here with a Jeep full of food and drink that I didn’t deliver.”
“You aren’t eating me out of house and home, Sam.” She promised, setting her semi-constructed mittens aside. “I had a good hunt a few weeks ago… Just before I found your wreck, as a matter of fact. A young buck.”
“Just the one? I’ve seen deer, here and there; but only in groups. Family units, really.”
Chloe nodded. “I know. I’ve got at least three such units in the Valley. I think five, but I don’t hunt on the far side of the lake that often. I’m pretty sure it was the family we first saw when you were here last year. Remember? The large Buck, the silver furred doe, and the one I... hunted.”
“I remember they always scattered every time I so much as breathed.” Sam quipped. “You went for the younger one?” He wasn’t accusing. He was trying to understand the hunt. “Why not the older ones?”
“This time of year, there was a chance the doe was already pregnant. You shoot the buck with the oversized antlers; you’re making them more vulnerable to predators. The Buck had a few good breeding years left in him. The doe will keep reproducing enough to leave me something to hunt next season.”
“Like a tub of icewater in a snowstorm, babe.”
“No, not judging. If I had to pick, I would have done the same calculation. In fact, I diddo the same calculation with rabbits, though I had no idea how to ‘aim’ my snares at the younger ones.”
“Mm. Anyway, I gained at least twenty kilos of ‘groceries’.”
Chloe rolled her eyes. “Twenty kilos. About forty five pounds.”
“Ah.” He looked at her. “You’re American. Why do you bother with the metric system?”
“Because literally everyone else in the world uses it?” She quipped. “I run charter flights out into the wilderness, Yankee. A lot of my customers are tourists from other countries. So are most of my neighbors. I’m a lot closer to Canada than I am to any American towns. I still think in Kilos and Meters.” She shook her head. “I’ve got food, is my point. If you don’t wanna take up too much, I can feed you slips of plain venison cooked on sticks, but if you lasted this long, you know where to find things as you go. My preserves and stores are just trimmings on the roast. That buck will feed us both for weeks.” She paused. “Assuming you plan to stay that long.”
“Why would I leave?” He paused. “Assuming I’m still welcome to stay.”
Strange silence. Sam looked over when she didn’t answer; and noticed she was completely still. She looked like she’d seen a ghost. Whatever his comment had sparked in her, she wasn’t liking it at all.
“Anyway, we were just starting with chapter… Twenty One.” Sam picked up the Kindle again and began to read to her. “One knows it then for a moment or so. And one knows it sometimes when one stands by oneself in a wood at sunset and the mysterious deep gold stillness slanting through and under the branches seems to be saying slowly again and again something one cannot quite hear, however much one tries. Then sometimes the immense quiet of the dark blue at night with millions of stars waiting and watching makes one sure; and sometimes a sound of far-off music makes it true; and sometimes a look in someone’s eyes.”
Chloe let out a breath and went back to work on the mittens, letting him read for a while. She loved this book; and this chapter more than most.
“Glad you’ve got a spare toothbrush.” Sam said at the end of the day.
“I stock up on all the essentials.” Chloe nodded; putting the plates away. “Toothbrushes are something you don’t think about until you don’t have one. Trust me, you don’t make that mistake twice.”
Sam chuckled and settled into the futon, stoking the dimming fire. Chloe went to her work table and came back with her latest finished product, a suede blanket. It was soft and supple and a golden tan in color. “From the buck. I was wondering what to do with it, but now I know. It’s for you, Sam.”
Sam took it with due gravity and felt it rest over his hands. It was smooth like butter and soft like silk. She’d worked it thoroughly. The patterns in the furside were fine and delicate, and the edges were sewn strongly, giving the dimensions a neat finish. Just the feel of it was warm in a way nothing he bought in a store ever would be. He could almost feel Chloe’s hands in the suede, like she had imbued herself in the gift.
“It’s amazing.” Sam murmured, already starting to drift.
Chloe looked back to the hammock she’d strung up in her loft space, before she finally made up her mind and settled in next to him on the floor, pulling the blanket around them both like a cocoon. “Do you mind?”
“Nuh.” He was fading into sleep.
“Good.” She pulled the soft, golden deerskin around them both warmly. The colors of it seemed to glow by the low firelight. “Sleep well.”
Chloe woke up first the next morning, in the hour before dawn, and found his arm was around her. She wasn’t sure if he’d shifted during the night, or if it was deliberate, nor did she much care. She didn’t open her eyes, scenting the wind outside without moving.More snow coming. Probably another storm.
She very carefully shifted the blanket to check his foot. The bleeding had not seeped through. His foot was healing well. When she found him, the toes were black; all circulation gone. In a way, it made the recovery easier. She would change the bandage again after breakfast. She put the blanket back, and he snuggled closer; seeking warmth in his sleep.
Alive.She thought, still trying to get used to the idea.You’ve written almost a dozen drafts of a letter to his sister, expressing your condolences; and he’s alive. Alive, and safe, and warm. The thought became a mantra in her head.Alive, and safe, and warm. Alive, and safe, and warm. Alive, and safe, and warm.
Chloe let the thought lull her back to sleep.
“Listen, how long until your uncle brings the plane back?” Sam asked her over breakfast. Sourdough pancakes with honey.
“Hard to tell. He mentioned the Hangar was trying to order parts. Between the economy, and the time of year; there’s a lot of slowdown.” Chloe shrugged. “Happens every winter, but it’s never been a problem before.”
“You didn’t have me around then.” Sam said with a good-natured sigh.
Chloe paused. “Oh? You in that much of a hurry?”
“Not if nobody’s looking for me.” He promised. “Assuming you can stand to have me around, and assuming we have the supplies; I’d be fine waiting out the whole winter; if that’s what it’ll take. But if Liz has figured out I’m not where I’m meant to be, she could be going nuts with worry. So if it’s going to be a lot longer before your uncle shows; there may be an alternative.” Sam gestured at her radio. “I’m looking at your Ham Radio setup, and it’s possible I might be able to rig it up to the antennae at the Firewatch Station.”
“I thought it was fried.”
“The radio at the Station was dead. Because the grounding wire had been burned out by lightning; and the generator with it. So the power was off, permanently. But I have no idea about the actual Antenna cable; or for that matter, the Station radio itself. Maybe the lightning cooked it, maybe it was just without power. If it’s intact… We might be able to hook up the battery in your ATV to the radio in the Firewatch Station. If it’s fried too, we have a backup option with your Ham Radio. An antennae that long will be outside the normal FM range, and the usual HAM spectrum is limited, compared to the Station Tower. But if the cable is intact, or in any way repairable…” He spread his hands wide. “I repaired regional stations for a living, back in the old days.” He couldn’t help the wry smile. “Y’know, two months ago?”
“We’d need the ATV just to get it up to the Station.” Chloe bit her lip. “We’d have to dig the ATV out of the ice. Of course, I’d have to do that anyway… And we’d have to take the radio with us.”
“I’ll take the rifle.” Sam said. “I had almost no luck with the bow.”
“I thought it kept you fed.” Chloe gestured at his journal. “Two headshots in a row?”
“Tell you the truth, Chloe… I was aiming for an entirely different spot. And I never wrote down how many shots I missed. The Cat barely bothered to avoid the shot before he got his fangs into me. I have more faith in your ability with your own bow than I do in my broken one.”
Chloe smiled a bit and held the rifle out with one hand. “You sure? Because you’d have been able to use the bow as a walking stick. You have to learn how to walk all over again when you lose toes.”
“I had been walking for weeks; and then several days on bed rest. I can hobble in a somewhat appealing and productive manner.” Sam saw her face. “You don’t have to say it. I’ve seen nature documentaries. I know what happens to the one that limps along behind the pack.”
“It’s not that.” Chloe hesitated. “It’s…”
“No, I get it. You’re still getting used to the idea of me being back; and now we’re going out into Cougar territory.” Sam nodded. “The part you don’t get is that I’ve been trying to find you for the longest month of my life. I’m not letting you out of my sight now. This much I’ve learned: There are worse things than moving slowly.”
Chloe couldn’t argue with that, and Sam laced his moccasins tightly as she went for her spare set of snowshoes.
The two of them hiked to the lake; and then out onto the ice, heading for Chloe’s ATV. “Y’know, there’s a better than average chance that my Uncle could be on his way back with the plane right now. You sure you wanna risk another cross-lake trip?”
“You told him to try and reach me while he was out there.” Sam offered. “What happened when he couldn’t get me on the phone?”
“I don’t know. That was when I lost contact with him myself. My sense is that if he thought you were in danger, he would have come back in a helicopter, or something. If he never came back, he must think you’re safe somehow. So he may come back as soon as the plane’s ready. But whether he does or he doesn’t: The ATV is our only transport, whether this radio trick works or not.”
The ice was solid under their feet as they headed out to the ATV. The last time Sam was on this lake, he had found the Cougar stalking him; and he held the rifle tightly. Chloe knelt beside the ATV and examined the area carefully. “I think I can chip free the ice that’s wrapped around the treads. After that, we have options. We can winch it out, or lay boughs under these treads to give us some traction.”
“Winch it how?” Sam asked; scanning constantly.
“The ice is much thicker now. I can drill a hole; and put something solid into the gap; like digging a hole for a fencepost. Use that as an anchor to winch out the vehicle. But I don’t think it’ll be that hard. There’s still more than half a tank in here. Once we get the treads moving again; they’ll bite deep and pull hard. It was the weight of the thing that was a risk last time.”
“We’re lucky the ice refroze fast enough that it didn’t go to the bottom of the lake.” Sam commented. “Alright, let’s get to work.”
Sam was moving smoother now, relearning his balance. Losing toes meant he had to learn how to walk all over again; but he’d had to re-learn a lot of things quickly.
Chloe had survived several winters, and had ice-hooks in her cabin. Burying them, hooked into the ice, gave the ATV a strong anchor point for the winch-cables. Chloe chipped at the ice around the treads. “Work fast!” She called to Sam. “We don’t want these refreezing.”
Sam worked the hand-winch as fast as he could, pulling it taut. “Here we go!”
Chloe went to the ATV, watching the line. The cable was tight, then it creaked… and finally, the nose of the ATV lifted. She followed the sound of winching, seeing the vehicle rock in time with Sam working the winch.
The nose lifted above the ice-line, and Chloe twisted the throttle. The engine roared, and the ATV lurched. Lurched again... And finally wrenched free. Chloe hit the brakes before the thing ran over the cable too. “We’re up!” She shouted brightly. “Let’s go!”
Sam gathered up the cable as fast as he could, and climbed on the back of the ATV as she drove past. “We sure we want to do this today?” He said in Chloe’s ear as they reached the shoreline. “The sky says another storm’s coming. We either wait it out in the Station, or at your cabin. Lady’s choice.”
Chloe bit her lip. “I’d like you to see a doctor as soon as possible. I’m pretty sure there’s no infection on that foot of yours, but I’d rather be safe than sorry while you still have two feet and eight toes. I’m not a surgeon.”
“Then we push on with the radio.”
With two of them and their cargo, they took the trip slower. The snows had once again changed the geography of the valley. But the lake had grown more solid in their time of recovery, so they didn’t have to circle the lake.
“There’s your bonfire!” Chloe called. “On the way back, I’d like to check out that shelter of yours. The one I read about in your journal.”
“Looking forward to it.” Sam grinned. “I left a few of the snares set up too. I should take them down before I... leave.” His voice hitched on the last word.
The engine changed pitch as Chloe’s grip on the throttle weakened for a moment. Chloe said nothing, caught off guard. It seemed unbelievable, after all the effort they’d put into finding each other. In fact, it was absolutely jarring to suddenly remember that their ultimate goal was to be parted again. A goal that they were close to reaching at last.
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.