Southern Stars

Part 8

The rain was finally slowing down.  Dar had wrung out her clothing as best as she could, but put the damp garments back on because she figured the wet was going to continue and getting two sets of clothes wet made no sense.

Standing in the rain made no sense, sitting in the rain made no sense, waiting to get so cold they started chattering made no sense.  Dar exhaled.

She felt clammy and cold and she spared a moment of intense nostalgia imagining being on her dock near the cabin, spraying off her boat, almost able to feel the sunlight on her shoulders in the tank top she’d be wearing to do that and the roughness of the wood planks under her bare feet.

Next vacation, cabin for sure.  Dar sighed, dismissing the images.

The wind was dropping, at least.  She went to the edge of the shelter and looked out over the path, judging the rush of the water still heading downhill.

Kerry came over to stand next to her.  Whatcha thinking?”

“Thinking I don’t want to stay up here.” Dar answered. “Want to go looking around for a better place with me?”

Kerry smiled. “Is that a serious question?”

“Not really, no.”

Kerry folded her arms and rocked up and down on her hiking boots a little. She had her hood down, exposing her short pale hair in damp disarray. “It’ll be pretty slow going if everyone joins us.”

“Everyone’s not joining us.” Dar stated calmly.  “No saying we’ll find anything better before it gets dark. We come back if not.”

Behind them the rest of the group was sitting down on the remaining tarps, just trying to stay as dry as they could. No one was talking, Rich had made no effort to get out his cards.  Petey was still draped over the cooler, resting on his belly with his arms folded under his head.

Don wandered over. “You gals want to sit down over there? We got some space.” He gestured vaguely behind him.  “Not real comfortable, but it’s something.”

Dar shook her head. “No.” She stuck her hand out and judged the rain.  “I think we’re going to go see if we can find a better place to shelter.”

“It’s too cold to just sit out here.” Kerry spoke up. “My lips are turning blue.”

Dar inspected them. “Hm.”  She leaned over unexpectedly and covered Kerry’s lips with her own for quite some seconds, then pulled back. “Better?”

“Yes.” Kerry cleared her throat. “So I agree with Dar.  We should see if we can find a place with more shelter, where we can find something to maybe light up so it’s not so cold.”

Don nodded. “Good idea. Let me and one of those fellers come along too.” He turned and went back over to the group, pulling Rich aside and speaking to him.

Dar’s eyes narrowed. “Did I ask for company?” She muttered.

Kerry patted her side. “it’ll be good to have company.  Especially if we have to make a hand bridge over water or something like that.”  She turned. “Let me get my pack and our sticks.”  

Dar zipped her jacket up and put the hood up around her head, snugging it tight under her jaw and fastening the throat flap of the waterproof garment.  

Don and Rich came over, with their packs on their back. 

“Good idea.” Rich said. “I’m really sick and tired of being here.” He tightened the sleeves on his jacket around his wrists. “I’m starving.”

“We all are.” Don told him. “So let’s see if we can find a better spot. You got that radio phone?”

“Got it.”  Rich said. “We told the rest of them where we were going.” He put up his hood. “Told em if we found some place we’d come back and get everyone.”

“And if it got dark we’d shelter ourselves under someplace.” Don agreed. “They can catch up in the morning. Easier to find shelter for four.”

Easier to find for two. Kerry could almost hear Dar’s thoughts audibly as her partner adjusted the straps on the pack she was carrying, brow puckered.  She gave her a pat on the hip and took a deep breath, pausing to sip a mouthful of rain water from her bottle and swallow it, hoping it would quell her complaining stomach.

“True that.” Rich agreed. “Lets go.”

Dar led the way out into the rain, into the gray light, starting down the path as the rushing water covered her boots but presented no real impediment to her progress.   She probed the ground with the stick Kerry handed her, and they made their way down the slope and out of sight of the camp with relative speed.

“Glad to be out of that bunch.”  Don said, after about twenty minutes walking.  “Rather be doing something constructive.”

“Yeah.” Rich maneuvered around a half submerged boulder.  “It was getting cold just standing there. Kerry’s right. We’re going to end up with hypothermia.”

“Better walking.” Kerry felt herself warming up, despite the fact her pants were once again getting drenched with rain. “If we can get back to that shelter from the other night, there were those sagebrush bushes, and those trees near the waterfall.”

They could see the bottom of the trail. “Could be.” Don said. “Looks like it’s not too bad there.” He looked around, “You figure those other two came this way? We should have caught them by now yeah?”

Dar started slightly. “Crap. Forgot all about them.” She admitted.  “No telling which way they went not like this ground holds footprints.”

There were several bends in the path ahead of them and they went down the slope sideways, unable to really see their footing with all the water.  The rain, as though in cooperation with them slowed to an annoying mist, droplets fine but still stinging.

“Florida rain’s sure not like this.” Kerry said, after a brief silence.  “Drops big enough to knock you over.”

“Tropical.” Don said, briefly.

“Part of it, yes.” Dar commented. “Bottom three counties are tropical. Above that’s sub tropical.”  She evaded a rush of water over a big rock and moved closer to the right wall of the canyon. “You can see it driving up. Past Palm Beach it changes.”

“What was 9-11 like for you ladies?” Don inquired. “Must have been strange with all those pilots being trained down there.”

Dar and Kerry exchanged glances.  “I was out of the country the day it happened.” Dar said. “Kerry was in Michigan.  We didn’t get back until most of that was over.”

“I was at work.” Rich said. “We had a big promotion starting that day so we were all in early getting ready for it.  I’d just sat down with a bagel when one of the admins came running in and told us to all come into the breakroom and watch on CNN.”

Don nodded. “I was cleaning the garage.” He said. “Marcia came in and told me a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I thought it was a Piper Cub or something – some sightseeing thing, you know?” He shook his head. “I said, ‘yeah, so what?’”

Kerry amiably joined in. “I was eating breakfast with my family. Or, actually, brunch I think.” She said. “Dar called me from the UK.”

Dar nodded. “I was on the line with my admin, ordering a marketing kit.” She admitted.  “I heard from one of our staff through the phone something was happening and we turned it on where we were.”

“Everyone remembers where they were right then.” Don said. “It was that kind of moment.”

Rich nodded. “They sent us home. We didn’t come back in for a week.” He said. “You guys?” He looked at Dar and Kerry.

“Not exactly.” They both answered in unison, then looked at each other again.  Kerry tilted her head in her partner’s direction.

Dar reached the next curve and peered around it. “Company we worked for did some work to help the recovery.” She said, briefly. “We were tied up with that a few weeks.”

They continued around the corner and across the next narrow area, where the flowing water was puddling at the bottom of the path.  It was halfway up Dar’s lower legs, and she pushed through it to the next angle that started upward.

“Must have been pretty high here.” Don examined some debris on the wall. “Don’t think we should bring those hurt people through unless it drops.”

“Hey wait.” Rich said, suddenly. “Wait, I remember seeing you on the news!” He caught hold of Dar’s arm. “I saw you interviewed about something you were doing in New York.” 

They paused and Dar looked at him.  “Yeah.” She turned and kept going. “C’mon, we’re getting soaked here.”  She climbed around the corner and they started up again, quickly getting past the pooling and back onto dry land.

“We worked with the city on restoring some services.” Kerry said, after they’d hiked upward for about five minutes. “I remember that interview. We were at our offices in Rockefeller Center and they were asking us about some of the things we were doing.”

“Stock exchange?” Don asked, giving her a shrewd look.

“Something of that, yes.” Kerry admitted. “Some other things, services for the city, things like that.”

“Uh huh.” Don grunted. “Pal of mine works for Verizon.” He sidled up the slope sideways. “He was there. I remember him telling me some crazy stories.”

“Mm.” Kerry grinned briefly. “It was a strange time.”

The rock ground now was quite slippery, and Dar focused on leaning forward and keeping her boots from slipping on the wet gravel, still feeling the rain hitting the hood over her head.  She started looking forward as they climbed up along the track, then saw motion ahead of them. “Whoa.”

“Hey it’s a sheep.” Rich said, with some excitement. “Lets catch it!”  He started to plunge up the path, slipping and sliding as he dashed after the animal.

“He’s going to kill himself.” Don groaned. “Hey! Watch it! Be careful!”

Just as Don said it, Rich slipped and then he was tumbling back down towards them.    Kerry dodged over to get in the way but found herself hauled back out of the way as Dar pulled them both to one side. “Let him go.” She said. “If he hits you you’ll both go down.”

Don had also jumped clear, and Rich was unable to stop himself until he was at the bottom of the slope and rolling into the pool of water.

Dar sighed. Then she started down with the rest of them hastily following.

**

“Yeah, it was stupid.”  Rich was sitting on a rock, his pants leg rolled up exposing a bloody kneecap.  “You don’t have to tell me. I’m just so damn hungry all I saw was a chance to get something to eat.”

“Well.” Dar finished wrapping a strip of shirt fabric around the bruised cut. “Unless it was a girl and we were going to milk it wouldn’t have done much for us.” She stood up. “There, try that.”  She looked around. “Does it pay to keep going on?”

“Oh, don’t let me be the one to squish this.” Rich got up hastily and stamped around in a circle, his boots splashing in the edge of the pooled rainwater. “Okay let’s go.” He picked up his stick, grimacing as he eased his elbow out straight.  “Sorry guys.”

The wind was picking up again as they started uphill, this time on a path free of mammals.  Rich was limping, and he was tucking his left arm close to his body, using his stick with his right hand.

Dar took the lead again and they climbed steadily up, keeping speech to a minimum as the clouds drifted grumpily overhead, spattering down rain that smacked against the rubberized surface of their jackets and sounded like large caterpillars dropping out of the sky.

They got to the top of the rise and up into the small pass, where the walls narrowed and cut the wind, and the tall walls arched over and gave them some protection and relief.  Walking on flat ground was a relief as well, and Dar flexed her legs that were burning a little from the climb.

The canyon angled to the left, and they crossed under two thick arches as they straddled a thin stream of water running down the middle of the path.  They had just started through the narrow passage that would lead to the larger valley when they heard hoofbeats again.

Dar, in the lead, stopped and lifted her hand up. “What’s that?”

“That sheep?” Rich eased up behind her and peered past her shoulder.

Dar got both hands around her hiking pole just in time as a large animal skittered through the end of the passage and headed right for them with it’s horns down in an aggressive charge.

“Holy shit.”

“Get against the wall.” Dar braced herself and lifted the pole as the animal came right at her. “Kerry get behind me.”

Gotcha.” Kerry put her arms around her partner and braced her legs. 

Don and Rich flattened themselves against the wall as the bighorn lunged at them, and at the last minute Dar slammed the pole end into the animal’s face and let out a loud yell.  It veered to one side and then turned, trying to butt her.

Kerry released her hold and grabbed the horns, yanking the sheep to one side and letting out a yell of her own. The sheep stuck its tongue out and baa’d in frustration, jerking it’s head back and forth as Dar took the opportunity to kick it in the ribs.

“Where’s your knife!” Rich yelled. “Let’s kill it!”

Kerry released her hold and the sheep reeled backwards, smacking itself against the opposite wall before it dashed off in the opposite direction, heading through the narrows back the way they’d come.

Rich went after it, and Don as well, running as fast as they could after the creature, yelling at it.

Kerry drew a breath. “Should we have killed that thing, Dar?”

Dar watched their companions throw rocks after the sheep, as it plunged downhill as fast as it could go.  “Do you know how to butcher a sheep?”

Kerry blinked. “No.”

“Me either.” Dar said. “Most I can handle is a rabbit or a squirrel. What the hell are we going to do with a quarter ton animal?” She asked. “We left the pots and pans and everything behind, Ker. Everything’s wet.”

Don and Rich came jogging back. “Damn it.” Rich said. “We had it! We coulda killed it! That thing’d feed us for a week!”

“You can be in front next time and grab it.” Dar said. “If we find another one closer to the shelter I’ll jump on it with ya.” She went quickly to the passage the animal had come down and passed through it, getting through and down into the plateau where they’d burned Josh’s body, the remnants of the fire, and his bones, already washed long away.

**

It made her feel better, being out in the open, despite the rain that kept coming down and the wind that had picked up and was making her eyes water.   Off to one side she could hear the waterfall, and all of them were breathing audible sighs of relief.

“That overhang’s still there.” Rich said. “Let me run back and get the rest of them. I think they can make it right?” He looked overhead. “Maybe just after dark?”

Dar shaded her eyes and looked across at their former shelter. “Yeah.” She decided. “You guys want to go back and get them? Kerry and I will start hunting around for some wood we can dry off.”

“Sounds good.” Don agreed. “You ladies going to be okay by yourselves?”

“Yes.” Kerry said.  “I think I see some dead bushes over there we can use for kindling.  And who knows? Maybe Dar’ll find a .. um.” Her voice trailed off.  “Something.”

Dar chuckled. “I’ll try.”

“We’ll look too.” Rich said. “If I find that sheep I can get the rest of those guys to help carry it.” He flourished his walking stick and started back up the path, and after a moment Don followed him.

“Be careful!” The older man yelled back over his shoulder.

Dar watched them climb back up the slope. Then she turned and regarded Kerry.  “At last.”

“We’re alone.” Kerry completed the thought.

Dar extended her hand and they clasped fingers, then turned and started along the narrow track that wound through the valley floor.   The rain pattered softly against their rain jackets and made the puddles on the path dance.

“You know what is weird?” Kerry said, after they’d walked in silence for about five minutes.

“Those two jerks disappeared.”

Kerry sighed. “You really can read my mind.” She said.  “Yeah, that’s it.  It’s only one path back, Dar.  We have the phone.”

“He has the phone.” Dar pointed over her own shoulder. “Agreed, though.  I was thinking about those guys.  We should have caught them up.”

“You think they climbed out?”

Dar looked around at the canyon walls, towering over them. “Maybe.”  She mused. “You’d think we could see them though.  He said the walls back there were too soft to climb. Maybe these aren’t.” She shaded her eyes again and started searching the dark gray surface. “This looks like different rock.”

It was getting dark.  Twilight was already putting the valley in shadow, but the light tan of the pocket canyons they had come out of was definitely different than the cliffs the waterfall was pouring out of.  There was no sign of anyone scaling them though.

Dar put her attention back on the trail.  They were moving down into the flat part of the valley and there were dripping scrub brush on either side of the path, some washed out of the thin soil and they passed three or four sodden logs that were split and cracked.

No animals though.  Dar kept her eyes peeled on the ground, aware of how hungry she was.  The weather had driven everything under shelter, and as she tipped her head back, there weren’t even any birds to be seen drifting overhead.

Not that she had anything to catch one with anyway.  Dar sighed.

Kerry squeezed her hand gently. “We’ll get through this, hon.” She said. “It just seems like a walk through hell right now.”

Dar listened to the rain for a moment. “We’ve been through worse.” She felt her shoulders relax as they increased their distance from the rest of the party, at least for the moment.   It was nice not to hear voices around them, or the sound of things being moved.

There was just the wind swirling around them, the soft sounds of their boots against the rough path, the waterfall in the distance. 

“You know what I wish we had?”  Kerry spoke up, after a pause.

“Dinner.”

“A horse.”

“For dinner?” Dar’s voice lifted in mild outrage. 

“To ride on.” Kerry chuckled a little.  “Wouldn’t it be nice?  We’ve been walking all day. I’m tired. I want a nice palomino horse to ride.”

“Those other guys would want to eat him.”  Dar advised her. “We’d end up defending the damn thing with my pocketknife and your makeshift frypan.”

Kerry wiped the rain out of her eyes, her shoulders shaking with laughter.  “Oh god I can imagine that too.” She said. “I mean, would any of us know what to do if we did catch a sheep, Dar? Seriously?”

“Seriously I’d hope it was a lady sheep.” Dar responded, as she skirted a deep puddle.   “I do know how to milk goats and it can’t be that different.”

“You do?”

“Yup.” 

“Can you milk a cow?”

“Yup.”

Kerry eyed her.  “Dar, you grew up on a Navy base, not a farm. What’s up with that?”

Mmmmoooo.”  Her partner warbled.  “Okay so we were on the base that was south of the Redlands.” Dar said. “Remember I said I had a buddy who had some horses I learned to ride on?”

Kerry frowned, then her expression cleared. “Oh, yeah, sure.  When we went on that ride on our first vacation, and I got my horse bee stung and nearly got bucked off to the next state.” She recalled. “I should have gotten the warning about vacations with you right then.”

Dar chuckled. “With me? That was my first vacation in a decade.” She protested.

“Mm.”

“Anyway, my buddy had a couple dozen of everything there. Horses, cows, goats, and chickens you name it.” Dar went on.  “So I learned to milk the cows and goats.”  She smiled in memory. “He was the original farm to table guy, decades before it was trendy.”

“Did he make his own cheese and stuff?” Kerry kicked a rock ahead of them.  “Like, it was a real farm?”

“He did.” Dar said. “He was gay. And talking to him, made me realize I might be too.”

Kerry blinked. “Oh.”   She said. “How old were you?”

“Twelve, thirteen maybe.”  Dar shaded her eyes and watched a bird circling overhead.   “He was maybe thirty? His parents had owned the farm and they passed on.  He had come home after living in San Francisco for five years.”

“Culture shock?”

Kinda. The Redlands were a little thin on liberalism. Still are.” Dar studied the sky. “Those look like vultures.”  She turned her head and regarded Kerry. “That could be gross but sort of okay, or really horrific.”

Kerry eyed the birds.  “Well, lets go find out.” She increased her pace, and they moved doggedly up the path and through the weather ravaged bushes, flattened by rain across the valley bottom, hopping over streams of runoff.

Some were too wide to jump, and Dar paused as they reached what was in truth a small creek, the water clear and in motion.   She took a step into it and sank up to her knees, throwing out her hands for balance. “Whoa.”

Kerry cautiously followed her, grimacing at the chill of the water as it soaked her pants immediately.   They waded across as fast as they could and climbed up the other side, then continued on the path as they closed in on the overhanging shelf they’d sheltered under previously.

The shelf was there, intact, and Dar spared the spot a few moments attention before she tipped her head back up again and focused on the vultures.

Condors, actually.  “Let me go see what that’s all about.”  Dar eased out from behind the rocks that had formed their protection from the mountain lion.  “This is going to be about as good as it gets I guess.”  She took out her flashlight and unstrapped the pack on her back.

Kerry hesitated. “I’ll come with you.” She put her pack next to Dar’s and followed her as she emerged back out into the rain. 

It was growing dark.  The weather was getting worse.  “Keep an eye out for some stuff we can make a fire with.” Dar muttered, as they went up the path around the side of the valley back in the direction that would lead them eventually back to the supply hut.

Looking back, now that ramshackle run down structure seemed like the most luxurious of shelters, and she knew there would probably be even some old supplies there they hadn’t bothered to take with them.  

The condors were circling lower, and Dar could see one coming in for a landing and she got up to pass just in time to watch the last of the light fade over the scene of a kill, where the birds were already plucking at a carcass. 

Too small to be a person.  Dar felt relieved.  She exhaled as Kerry put a hand on her back and they moved cautiously forward, hearing the rasp and squawk of the birds as they landed.   

She could smell the blood, and as they got closer she could see the outline of the animal and its matted, already shredded coat. “I think….  Dar picked up a rock and threw it at the body, hitting one of the condors.

Kerry resisted the urge to close her eyes as they got closer.

“It’s a deer.”  Dar waved her arms, as the condors hopped awkwardly out of her way and cawed in disgruntlement.   She went over and knelt next to the carcass, already stiff in death and missing it’s eyeballs.  “Yeah.” She touched it, seeing the front of it’s throat torn and stained with blood.  “A mule deer.  Something killed it.”

“One of those lions?”  Kerry hazarded a guess as she reached Dar’s side and had a better view. It’s neck was twisted and it’s mouth was gaped open, tongue protruding and half missing as well.  “Something chewed it.”

“No idea.” Dar regarded it. “I guess we should take some of the meat. “

“Mm.” Kerry grimaced. “It’s sorta like road kill, isn’t it?”

Sorta.” Her partner reached back and patted her leg. “It’s better than crickets, right?”

Kerry sighed.

“Or beetles.” Dar pointed at one, scurrying away.

“Okay, okay.”

‘Want to gather stuff for a fire?” Dar looked up over her shoulder.  “This gets kinda messy.”

Kerry looked at her affectionately.  “Thanks honey” She leaned over and kissed Dar on the top of her head. “Thank you for being the cavewoman in the family.”

Dar chuckled silently.  Ooga ooga.”

“The super macha cavewoman.” Kerry ruffled her hair. “Let me see what I can do about the cooking part.”   She turned and started back to the overhang, turning on her flashlight and letting it play across the ground as she walked.

Dar put her own flashlight in her teeth and removed her pocketknife, opening it and setting it down so she could rearrange the dead deer so she could cut it open.

It was by far the largest thing she’d ever tried to cut up and she pulled it around in a few different ways, a little glad it was raining to keep the flies back and rinse the blood away, trying to remember how she’d done this to the small brown rabbits and squirrels they’d caught in the swamp back in the day.    

She wasn’t entirely sure of what she was doing, with this.  Nearby the condors hopped and cawed, anxious to get to the food now just out of their reach, and Dar realized with the dark, and the rain, it was also possible other creatures would be out there equally as hungry as she was.

Far off, she thought she heard a yell.  She paused and listened, but it wasn’t repeated.  “Ker?” She called out over her shoulder.

“Yeah?” Kerry’s voice floated back. “Something wrong?”

“Nope. Never mind.”  Dar went back to her work.

**

Kerry dragged a fallen tree behind her as she made her way up into the shelter of the overhang, pulling it clear of the rain and pausing to wipe the rain from her face.  “Phew.” 

Inside the little cave like space it was dark, and she turned on her flashlight and played it over her recent labor, now tucked against the back wall.  Arm fulls of dead grass, waterlogged bushes she’d pulled out of the shallow gravel and from numerous dead trees branches and twigs.

All soaking wet.   She turned and began breaking up the tree she’d dragged in behind her, putting the limbs up against the wall out of the rain.   

Then she went to the edge of the shelter and peered out, seeing a bit of light dancing nearby that was Dar still at work and even as she considered going out to help the light disappeared, then reappeared as her partner turned and started back up to where she was standing.

No sign of the others, yet.  Kerry waited as Dar ducked to enter, a bundle of blood smelling, dusky animal smelling stuff in her hands.   Ew.”

“Yeah, ew.” Dar agreed. “I left the rest there. I think a coyote was somewhere nearby growling.”

Kerry shone her flashlight off past Dar into the darkness, and thought she spotted some motion.  “Oh. That’s not good.”

Dar put the bundle down on the rock they’d previously used as a table, then she went over and stuck her hands out into the rain, scrubbing at her skin and letting the water run down to clean the blade of her pocketknife.  “Yeah, and this stuff is not going to burn much.” She sighed.

“All I could find.” Kerry replied, somewhat defensively.

“I know.” Dar went back and sat down on another rock, picking up one of the pieces of wood and starting to cut into the bark, working to peel it off. “Grab a handful of rocks, huh? In case we need them.”

Kerry went over to the firepit they’d made the last time they were there, and started collecting hand sized rocks. “Not a good mental image.”

Dar split the bark and peeled it away from the inner core of the limb, exposing a somewhat dry surface underneath.    She used the blade to split the inner branch into several pieces, then set them aside and started working on another piece.

Kerry carefully put the dry pieces up near the wall, and set the rocks next to them, and then she started stripping small twigs and pine needles off and putting them together with the dead grasses she’d found.  “Dar?”

“Huh?” Dar wiggled the blade of her knife under the bark and levered it off.  “Gonna ask me how I knew to do this?” She pointed at the branch.

“No. You come from the thunderstorm and lightning capital of the world, hon. I’m sure you know all about what to do with wet things.” Kerry responded, then paused, and chuckled.

Dar chuckled as well.  “I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“Punk.” Kerry went back to drying her twigs.

It was an odd moment. There was something ancient and strange and yet familiar about the place she found herself in right then, kneeling in chill discomfort, listening to the scrape of metal against wood, thinking about how good the fire would feel.

She stood up and went over to pick up more grass, stopping to peer out across the darkness of the valley. There was no sign of the rest of the group and she frowned, coming back to where Dar was working.  “What do you think is taking them so long?”

Dar glanced past her. “Maybe they decided to stay up there?” She said. “They don’t know it’s any better here.”

Kerry grunted. Then she roamed around the cave and picked up a flat stone, bringing it back to the fire circle.  She started arranging the stripped limbs Dar was peeling in a square, wedging in the smaller pieces on all sides.  “Well, fine.  More for us.”

“They have all the supplies.” Dar remarked. “The tarps and all that.”

Kerry dried the grasses off on her shirt and started stuffing them inside the fire.  “I have all I need right here.” She said, after a moment of quiet.   She looked up to find Dar looking back at her, with a smile on her face. “I keep thinking I should be completely freaked out and for some reason I’m just not.”

Dar handed her another peeled limb.  Lets get this lit. I’m freezing.”  

“We have any matches?” Kerry looked up at her.

They both regarded each other.  “Crap.” Dar finally said.

Kerry sat down and then splayed herself backwards. “Son of a bitch.”

Dar got up and went to her pack, opening it and digging inside of it. “Maybe I have something I can use… aha!” She pulled her hand out in triumph. “Thought I remembered picking this up!”

Kerry lifted her head up. “What is it?”

“Bit of flint.”  Dar came back over and removed her knife from her pocket, taking a moment to wipe it off on her shirt and the piece of rock as well.  She settled herself on a rock near the fire and turned the rock in her hands, then she scraped the knife blade against it.

Nothing but sound.

She scraped it again.  Still nothing.   “Too wet.” Dar dried both off again, as Kerry sat up and wriggled around to see what she was doing.  Then she turned the rock over and tried again, this time rewarded with a single spark.  With a grunt, she settled closer and started smacking the rock with the knife, as they heard a rumble of thunder overhead.

On the two or three dozenth time, a shower of sparks fell into the dead grass, and a minute after that, they had a somewhat smoky little tiny blaze going, which Kerry quickly started sticking some of the twigs into.   She could already feel the warmth against the skin of her fingers, and the light from it outlined Dar’s angular profile as she continued to throw sparks into the center of the pit.

The larger branches smoldered and  popped, releasing the moisture inside them and Kerry reached over for more of the dead grass to keep things going while Dar carefully surrounded the fire with stones.   The warmth was spreading out to fill the space and providing them with light enough so that Dar turned off her flashlight to save the battery.

“Boy that feels good.” Kerry held her hands out. “When that rock heats up I can throw your road kill on it and we can almost be civilized.”

Thunder rumbled overhead.  “And maybe we won’t freeze.” Dar scooted a little closer. “We can drag more branches in here to cut the wind.”

They studied each other across the fire. “I hope those guys did stay in that shelter.” Kerry said, after a moment. “We can go find them in the morning.”

“And bring them some road kill.” Dar concluded. She got up and retrieved the bundle of deer meat, and sat down cross legged on the sandy floor and started cutting it into strips.

**

The deer had been small, but had provided plenty of food for them both.  Kerry had even found a little bit of salt in one of her pockets and after the rock heated next to the fire she used it as a pan and grilled the strips Dar had cut on it.

That had worked better than she’d expected.  Dar had even sharpened some discarded twigs into makeshift skewers and what had ended up was something that she could convince herself resembled Thai satay except without the delicious peanut sauce and all that curry.

It wasn’t a great taste.  She never really had cared for venison, but the animal had been a young one and for sure it was better than nothing.  It was hot, it filled her stomach and her body was grateful for the application of protein.

It was that, and rainwater.  That they had plenty of, and after they dragged all the brush they could find into the shelter, they built up the fire enough to dry their clothing and boots while the rest of the venison was cooked off for the morning.

Or for their companions if they decided to hike up in the dark. 

There was nothing to sit on, but they had put the brush between the rocks that had fallen in front of the overhang and made sort of a shelter from the wind and rain that was tolerable. Or really, tolerable because there wasn’t any choice. 

Was that what survival was like? You just got reduced down to looking at what positive you could find because of the negative that all implied?  Kerry turned over another stick full of meat and regarded it thoughtfully.

Dar was sitting next to her, using the stone she’d used to make the sparks to sharpen the blade of her pocket knife, idly drawing it across the surface making a soft scraping sound. “I feel better.” She said, after a pause. “Glad we got to that deer before whatever killed it did.”

“Me too.” Kerry agreed. She picked up one of the cluster of leaves and waved off the smoke from the fire, pushing it towards the gaps in the rock and away from them.  “So, what’s the plan?”

Dar cocked her head. “What’s the plan?” She asked back.

“C’mon, Dar. You’re a lot more experienced in this stuff than I am.” Kerry stated, seeing her partner’s eyes widen in reaction. “My entire experience of camping was in a cabin with room service and you know it.”

Dar scratched the bridge of her nose, then settled her elbows on her knees and regarded the fire.  Her pocket knife was still clasped in one hand, the sharpening for the moment forgotten.  “Two choices.” She finally said. “We either go back along the trail to find the rest of them or we continue on to the shack.”

“Right.”

“I’d rather keep going to the shack.” Dar said. “I’m tired of all the other people.” She reached out and took one of the skewers, biting off a piece at the end of it and chewing it. “I don’t want to deal with them. I just want to deal with you.”

“Hm.” Kerry was a little abashed by how much her internal dialog agreed with what Dar had just said. “Shouldn’t we help the other people?” She suggested anyway.

“We should.” Dar agreed readily. “But I don’t want to.”  She munched on the grilled venison. “Nothing on earth really requiring us to do that, Ker.” She added. “We’re not legally mandated to be selfless martyrs.”

Kerry flipped a few of the strips.  “No, I know.” She said, in a quiet voice.

“Like I said, last couple times I did that I got a kick in the head for it.” Her partner concluded “Couple of times I stepped in this trip? Also got my head kicked. How much of that do I want to take? I’m kinda done.”

It was all honest and true and Kerry knew it.  She considered in silence for a few moments then she just shrugged. “Okay.”  She said. “I’d rather just be with you too.” She rested her head against Dar’s shoulder and listened to the fire pop and crackle a little.  “Besides, they’re the ones with the sat phone. They’ve got a better chance of getting a ride out than we do.”

“True.” Dar said. “Could be they’ll come after us and find us.” She added. “I just don’t want to have to give up the progress we made yesterday.”

“Right.”

They both looked at each other, then, after a moment they both started laughing. “We’re so full of shit.” Kerry said.  “How about we stick around here in the morning and see if they show up, then go on.”

Dar was still laughing, and shaking her head. “Rampaging boofheads.” She sighed. Then paused, as they both straightened a little, as sound drifted in from outside the shelter. “What was that?”

Kerry frowned. “An owl?”

They went quiet and listened. The wind outside whistled against the rock, and the rain pattered, but there was a sound again past that which sounded strange and a little unearthly.  A bit like  howl, or moan and wordless.

Dar got up and went to the edge of the shelter, poking her head out from the branches that were blocking the rain. “I thought I heard something like that when I was cutting up that deer.” She said. “It stopped though.”

“When you called me back?” Kerry stood and came over to her.  As they stood in silence, it sounded again. “Is that an animal?”

Dar shook her head. “I don’t know.”  She went back to the fire.  “Could be.”  She half turned as it sounded again. “Can’t think of what kind, but there are a lot of animals out here I’m not familiar with.”

“Could it be a coyote?” Kerry suggested, folding her arms over her chest. “It sounds a little dog like.” Then she turned and eyed Dar. “This isn’t some bad Lassie nightmare where our dogs followed us is it?”

“No.” Dar chuckled a little. “I don’t think Labradors howl like that.”

Kerry listened again to the sound as it drifted in on one the wind, then she shrugged and rejoined Dar, both of them settling down close to the fire again.  After a few minutes, the sound stopped.

Kerry rearranged her drying cargo pants.  “These are going to smell like bad barbeque.”  She remarked. “But at least we have a chance to dry everything. I think those guys behind us are going to end up just wet. There wasn’t enough shelter there to block the rain.

“True.”  Dar took a breath to continue, then stopped, when the sound returned, and this time, another sound accompanied it.  “That’s not an animal.”

Kerry put down the skewer she’d just lifted. “That’s someone yelling for help.”

They both stared at the fire, then stared at each other.  Then Dar exhaled and picked up her drying pants and started putting them on, while Kerry picked up her boots and put them down next to her as she removed the dry shirt she was wearing and replaced it with her damp one.

**

The flashlight was waterproof and Dar was glad.  She let it shine ahead of her and Kerry to light the path as she kept her other arm upraised to shield her eyes form the rain.

It pounded down around them everywhere, large drops they could feel impacting them as they searched the narrow valley past where they’d found the deer.  It was rocky and steep, and they were trying to be careful as they went along to save a fall.

“Hello!” Kerry yelled out again, her hands cupped around her mouth. “Hello!”

For a minute there was just the sound of the rain and the wind.  Then, relatively nearby they heard a yell in response, and heard motion to their right.   Dar lifted her flashlight and stopped walking, shining it out into the brush. 

“Hey!” Out of the darkness a form appeared, running up to them.

“Amy! What happened!” Kerry asked, as the girl came to a halt. She was wet through, and her hands were covered in cuts, the fingertips bleeding.

“Just come help.  We’re so screwed.” Amy gasped. “I’ve been calling for hours c’mon.” She started back the way she came and Kerry and Dar exchanged glances before they started after her.

“Bet I know where this is going.” Dar muttered.

“Yeah.” Kerry almost tripped over a stone, but ended up hopping over it as Dar grabbed after her. “Me too.”

They chased after the dim figure in the rain, dodging past boulders and brush flattened by the water until they turned a corner and were approaching the canyon wall as thunder rumbled unexpectedly over their heads. 

“Great.” Dar shoved her hood back as they reached Amy’s side and she pointed up. 

In the dark they could see pretty much nothing  Dar played her flashlight up the wall until it found something not rock and stopped. “What in the hell?” A rope dangled down the wall and flapped uselessly against the stone.

“He was trying to climb up.” Amy got up onto a rock. “Todd! Todd! I found some help!”

The figure pinned up on the wall moved slightly.  “Fuck!” Came floating down weakly.  Somoeone just fucking shoot me!”

Dar turned the flashlight off and put it in her pocket, turning to face Amy. “What happened?”

“Just help him.” Amy said. “Do we have to talk about it?”

Dar folded her arms. “What exactly are you expecting us to do?” She asked, in a pragmatic tone that made Kerry flinch just slightly.  “He’s up on a wall in a storm. Neither of us can climb up there. You apparently tried.”

Amy stared at her, visibly in the faint light reflecting back from the clouds. “I tried. He took all the ropes and I coudon’t.  He made the swing up there..” She pointed to an outcropping. “One of the ropes broke and something happened to his arm. He can’t get down.”

“Ugh.” Kerry muttered.

“And he can’t go up.” Amy finished. “We have to help him!”

Kerry reached out in instinct and put her hand on Dar’s arm, sensing the shifting of the tall body next to her. “Look I know you’re really upset, but Dar’s right.  We can’t climb up there we need to go get help.” She said. “We need to go get the others. They have some ropes, and we can figure it out.”

“Are they with you? Where are they?” Amy shifted gears. “They have ropes.. sure I remember now. Lets get them.”  She started back down the path.

“Hold on.” Kerry chased after her and grabbed her arm. “They’re not with us.. I mean.. “ She held up her other hand in a calming gesture. “They stayed up in the pass, we guess. We went on ahead to set up a shelter.”

Amy stared at her. “What?”

“So if we go look for them it’s going to take a while.” Kerry concluded. “So lets just hold on a minute and figure it out”

“You left them?” Amy said.

“Like you did?” Kerry’s brows lifted.

“That’s different. We know what  we’re doing .”

Kerry looked at her, then up at the wall, then back at her.

Dar turned her back on them and looked up at the wall as a lightning flash outlined the body pressed against the stone “How long has he been up there?” She asked.

Amy came over to her. “He started up about two hours before sunset.” She exhaled. “He wanted to see if he could see anyone up at the top, and get a ride back.”

Dar pondered the scene in thoughtful silence for a minute, going over to take hold of the dangling rope. “What’s this for?”

“Safety.” Amy said. “It’s so if he slips .. but it was too wet. “ She said, then hesitated. “I couldn’t stop him.”

“Dar, lets go back up the trail and find the rest of them.” Kerry said. “We can’t do anything here.”  

Dar removed her rain jacket and set it on the ground, then gripped the rope. “This tied off?” She asked Amy. “As in, to something that’s not gonna just come down on top of us?”

Amy hesitated, then nodded.

“What are you doing?” Kerry lowered her voice, coming around to the other side of her partner and putting a hand on her arm.

“I can’t climb that rock wall.” Dar said. “But I can climb this rope.” She gave Kerry a wry look. “At least, I think I can. I might end up on my ass here in a minute.”

Kerry regarded her in utter seriousness. “Does that make sense?”  She whispered. ‘Shouldn’t we just go get help”

Dar’s eyes were visible in the light form the flashlight, sharp and clear.  “He’s been up there for hours. Might be good to see what it is we’re going to need to get help for.”

They stared at each other, rain pouring down on them and pattering against the rain jacket Kerry was wearing.  Dar had her hair pulled back and there was just water beading on her skin and when she blinked, droplets came off her lashes.

“Be careful.” Kerry finally said.  “I don’t want to see you get hurt too.”

“Okay.” Dar tugged on the rope experimentally.  “I’m going to see what I can see.” She took a step and shoved herself up into the air, grabbing the rope and hanging there a minute before she got her boots onto a bit of rock and started climbing upward.

“Holy shit.” Amy blurted.

**

It was hard. Dar felt the strain immediately and she spent a minute wondering if this was not a good, but even a reasonable idea.  It would make more sense to get the hell back down on the ground woudn’t it?  She glanced beneath her, barely able to see Kerry’s steadfast form below her.

She had her boots braced against the rock and she pulled herself up hand over hand, moving up the rock wall. There were some footholds, and she got herself wedged against one piece of rock as she looked for another higher up to get to.

The rain faded, a little and she focused on putting one hand over the other, feeling her body flex as a piece of stone from above, small, bounced against her shoulder and went tumbling down past her as she got up about a standard building floor above the ground.

She squinted upward into the rain, and lightning helpfully flashed showing her Todd’s dangling body perhaps another two floor lengths above her.  Then it went dark again, and she wondered, again, if this wasn’t a very bad idea.

He was tied, she wasn’t.  Dar understood if she lost her grip once she went past this point, falling would be painful at best, lethal at worst.

She paused, braced against the rock, hands gripped around the rope. “I shouldn’t be doing this.” She said, aloud, and knew it for truth. “I cant’do this.”

But another voice answered, in her head.  “You can.”  It was deeper than her own voice sounded to her, and eternally confident. “G’wan. You won’t fall.”

Weird moment.  Dar frowned. Then she shook her head and took a breath, and when she released it that came with an odd sense of calm as she started upward again, hand over hand, the wet rope despite it’s sodden damp gripping against her skin.

There was a ledge, she climbed up onto it and then found another foothold and made that one as well. The rain was pushed to the back of her mind and she single focused on the task as the strain moderated and her body responded with more confidence.

She thought about being back in the day, climbing up the rope wall with the guys. Always looking to prove herself their equal.  Dar felt her face tense into a grim smile. Their equal?

No.  She found a spot with no footholds and she pushed herself up a little, wrapping her legs around the rope and moving up like she had back in those days.  Not their equal. A picture flashed into her memory, of being at the top of the rope tower and turning, releasing one hand off and holding herself up with just the other, boots tensed against the thick strand below her.

She swarmed upward, feeling a sense of odd euphoria, a warmth that pulsed through her body and gave her energy as a faint laughter echoed in the back of her mind. 

Lightning flashed, and for a moment she jerked in reaction, eyes fluttering shut against the afterflash as she heard Todd cry out in anguish and then that was echoed with an alarmed yell from Kerry waiting on the ground below.

Instinctively Dar hung on as she felt rocks pelt her and she hoped like hell one of them wasn’t going to end up being what the rope was fastened to.

Then a huge thump made her jerk to her left, as a boulder crashed past her, knocking down others on it’s way down. “Watch out!!” She yelled down past her.

Then the rumbling died down. 

Dar waited. “Ker?”

“Fine!” Kerry yelled back. “Hurry the god damned hell up will you!!!!!”

She got the message, hearing the ferocious anxiety. “Got it!”  She stopped the daydreaming and inched herself upward until she reached the body dangling against the wall, swinging in the ropes, this close now the damage visible.

Todd’s arm was hanging in an awkward position in a far too extended way from his body.  She got up another foot and braced her boots against a tiny bit of outcropping, taking the strain off.  “Hey!””

He opened his eyes and looked at her, and it was not difficult to imagine the bloodshot ochre of them.  Fuuuuck.” His voice was hoarse and almost unrecognizable. “Just kill me will ya?”

Dar took a tighter grip on the rope.  “Your shoulder’s dislocated.”


“No shit.” He feebly tried to get his feet on some kind of ledge. “Can’t even think.”

Dar released one hand cautiously and took out her flashlight, turning it on to examine him. His lips were blue and there was a gray tinge to the rest of his skin.  There was a rope wrapped around him, fastened to two carabiners wedged in the rock, a third and fourth supporting the rope she was climbing.

The ropes had cut into his skin and Dar had it into her to feel sorry for him.  “We need to go get help.” She told him. “We can’t move you.”

He just stared at her. “Hurts too bad.” He finally said. “Couldn’t move anyhow.”  He paused, and breathed for a minute, his mouth open and sucking in the air. “Help me.”

The thunder rumbled overhead and it felt a little like it rumbled through her as well, the words sounding a gentle, far off chord in her ears she had no understanding of the source of.  “We will.” She said, nodding a little.  “Just hold on.”

The thunder rumbled again, but more softly.

**

“What is she doing?” Amy asked. 

Kerry half shook her head. “Probably talking to him. Figuring out what to do.”  She shaded her eyes from the rain and squinted, barely able to discern what her partner was doing in the faint reflection from the flashlight. “Wish she’d hurry up.”

Amy folded her arms over her body as she too stared upward. “This is so screwed.”

Kerry couldn’t find it in her to disagree.  “Hope that rope’s tied down freaking tight.”  She felt a sense of impatient anxiety and wished with all her heart they were somewhere else.  Anywhere else.  Even sitting in their office working on work else.

Even New York under the subway else.

Dar shifted position and edged over to where Todd was slumped, her boots wedged on a small outcropping just around the level of his chest.  She shifted her grip over to the ropes holding him up and then, with a glance to her right she took the rope she’d been climbing and tied it around her waist.

“What is she doing?” Amy asked again.

“No idea.” Kerry watched as Dar lowered herself into a crouch, hand wrapped around the ropes as she leaned out a little. “Really no time for us to be asking.” She folded her arms over her chest, feeling utterly helpless at the moment.

“Okay.” Dar found a purchase for her left boot that was deep enough to feel stable. “So, I’m going to pick up your arm and get my knee under it. “

“Fuck.”

“Yeah its going to hurt.”  She agreed.  “But if I can get some leverage and you can take it, we maybe can pop your shoulder back in place.”

“Fuck.” Todd repeated.

“Want me to just leave you?” Dar said. “Your choice.”

His head was pressed against the rock and she could barely see his eyes in the darkness. But she knew he was looking at her and after a pause he nodded. “Don’t..  I don’t care it hurts so much how much more could it?”

Dar felt a moment of compassion. “Okay hold on.” She drew a breath and then exhaled, shifting forward and grabbing the fabric of his jacket over his elbow, pulling it up towards her.

His body arched and he let out a hoarse scream, then biting his lip and muffling it.

Dar shifted her weight over and got her knee under the upper part of his arm, resisting the urge to throw up as she felt the unnatural motion.   “Move towards me.”

“Can’t.” He grunted out.

“C’mon.” Dar put some pressure on his elbow. His arm was so muscular it resisted manipulation and the angle was wrong for it. 

He let out a muted scream and his boots scrabbled against the stone, pushing him against the motion she was causing trying to relieve the pain.   Dar swung closer and grabbed him right under his upper shoulder and then she swung backwards and pulled.

He went limp, his head thumping against the rock with a sodden crack as she felt the joint come back into place.  She released her hold and moved her knee, letting his arm fall back down against his side, this time at least in a more normal position.  “Hey.”

No answer. 

“Ah crap.” Dar sighed.  She straightened back up and stood there a moment, waiting to see if he came to again, but there was no response to her nudges.   She examined the pressure of the ropes and could see scrapes and bruises in the light from her flash.

What to do? Anything to do?  Dar decided not.   She backed away from him and untied the rope from around her body, then grabbed it and shifted her weight to it, pushing away a little from where he was hanging. 

She felt her body start to shiver a little as she made her way hand over hand down the side of the rock, bumping against the wet stone as she decided to just use the rope and felt her boots get purchase on it, wanting nothing more than to be once again on solid ground.

Kerry used her flash to light the way down as she saw Dar’s form outlined against the faint light from the clouds overhead.  She felt a sense of relief as her partner passed the halfway point and she moved forward to get next to the wall as the sound of the rope scraping against leather came to them.  “Jesus.”

She drew in a breath and then released it, and then inhaled sharply as she heard a sudden cracking sound. “Dar!”

At the same time, Dar let out a startled wordless yell, and there was the sense of sudden motion over her head as rocks came tumbling down and Kerry lifted her hands in reflex to shield herself from them. She ducked and felt something come past her very fast.

Then she heard boots hitting the ground and Dar was sprawling next to her, as a coil of rope came down on both of them with a slithery thump. “What the!”  She grabbed Dar’s arm as her partner got to her feet and could hear her grunt of surprise.

Amy came running over.  “What happened?”

“Rope came loose.” Dar said, as she dusted herself off and then looked back up at the wall. “Came out of the rock I guess.”

Amy had grabbed the rope and sorted it with experienced hands, coming to the end and looking at it. “Wow.” She held up the piton still tied on it. “Look at that.” She looked up as well. “Is Todd okay? Did you talk to him?”

Dar grimaced as she looked at her hands in the light, scraped and raw.  “He now has something in common with you Ker. I put his shoulder back into it’s socket.”

“Oh fuck.” Amy inhaled.

“And?” Kerry looked around. “Did that help?”

“When he comes to, probably. He passed out.”  Dar flexed her fingers. “Let’s go find everyone.” She started away from the wall and towards the path, with both of them hurrying after her. “We need to move.”

“You okay?” Kerry asked her, as she caught up.  “How far did you fall?”

Dar remained silent as they walked for a long moment. “Not that far I guess.” She finally said, as they came down from the rise and got back onto the path. “I was pushing off against the wall and it just came loose.” She flexed her hands.  “I just..” She frowned.

“Just?” Kerry put her hand through Dar’s elbow and squeezed her arm.

“Felt like I was tumbling for a minute but then it was okay.” Dar finished, with a shrug. “I guess it was wasn’t as far as I thought it was.”

Kerry eyed her. “Glad you came down on your feet. No matter how high it was.”

“Mm.”

They made their way back to the shelter and ducked inside, where the fire was still crackling in a low, comforting way and Amy knelt next to it and held her hands out. “Oh my god that feels so amazing.” She said. “You have food here?”

“Venison kabobs.” Kerry handed her one.  “Something killed a deer before.”

Dar was kneeling next to their bags, studying them. “Does it pay to take this or just go with what we have?” She asked. “Does it pay to change into dry pants? I don’t think so.”

“Probably not.” Kerry was kneeling next to her. “I’m going to put on another shirt under this jacket though. At least I can keep a little warmer”

“Good idea.” Dar put her jacket down and pulled off her shirt, setting it aside and kneeling there in just her sodden cargo pants and sports bra as she paused to regard what she had in pack she’d been carrying. 

Kerry suppressed a smile, as the light from the fire splayed crimson against her partner’s sun darkened skin.

Dar sorted through the cloth and pulled dry long sleeve shirt from her bag. “What a waste of time.” She sighed. “A set of radios would have been a good idea.” She put the shirt on and tugged the sleeves down.

“No power.”  Amy was chewing the venison, crouched next to the fire. “They’d have to keep them charged. The whole point of the eco stuff is to not need that.”

Dar considered that as she donned a second shirt, feeling much better despite the stress from the climb and her scraped hands. “Screw it”  She said. “When we get back to Miami I’ll design some system of power and make a million bucks selling it to campers.”

“I like that idea.” Kerry got her jacket on and fastened.  “Solar?”

Dar tucked her pack and Kerry’s in a niche at the back of the wall.  “On this trip that would be pointless.” She zipped her jacket up. “Make it kinetic. Use all the hiking and crap to charge it. Let’s go.” She pulled her hood up. “He’s pretty cold up there.”

Amy scrambled to her feet and then covered the fire with loose rocks and dirt, damping it. “Never waste it.” She said as she followed them out into the rain, and they started back up the trail.”

**

For once, on the trip, they got lucky.   They were no more than halfway across the valley towards the waterfall when they saw flashlights ahead and then heard Dave’s voice call out.

“Hell yeah.” Kerry breathed a sigh of relief.  “Dave! Rich!”

“Hey!” Rich came trotting towards them. “Hey! We found you!”

Tracey was right behind him and they met on the path.  “Is that rock shelter still there? We’re freezing.”

Janet limped up, then trailing them the rest.  “Glad we caught up.” She gave Rich an ambiguous look.  Oh.. and you caught up to the other two?”

‘Sort of.” Kerry said “Yes, the shelter’s still there.. we just left it to come find you.”

“You found us.” Rich said. “We’ve got the tarps, so we can get out of the weather.” He rubbed his upper arms, as they all gathered around.  “Hi there.” He nodded at Amy.   “Let’s hurry up.”

“There’s a problem.” Dar said, bringing everyone to a halt abruptly.  “Her SO tried to climb the wall and got stuck.”

For a long moment there was just a bunch of people silently staring at each other.  Then Tracey snorted. “Screw him.” She said. “Hope he croaks up there, the asshole.”

She pushed past Dar and headed towards the shelter, with Petey limping after her.

Don and Marcia sidled silently after them, with a glance at Amy. 

“Sorry.” Rich shrugged, not even slightly uncomfortable as he also pushed past Amy. “Got what’s coming to him.”

Amy stood there and watched them pass, and Dar and Kerry stayed with her, until all of them had gone ahead and they had few choices but to follow.  “Huh.” Dar grunted, as she shook her head.

Kerry sighed.

“Screw them.” Amy turned and walked quickly away, angling to the side of the line the others were taking, on an angle that would bring her past the shelter back towards the wall Todd was hanging from.

“So.” Kerry put her hands on her hips.  “We go with them or with her?”

Dar rocked up and down a few times, her arms folded over her chest. “That’s like asking me if I want lettuce or tofu.”

“Hm.” Kerry half shrugged. “I don’t think we can do anything for her or for him until it’s light out.” She admitted. “Maybe we can talk these guys into helping.”

“Maybe we can.” Dar said. “At least we can try.”

“So lets go with them.”  Kerry decided, and they walked down the path that would take them to shelter.  “That’s where our stuff is anyway.”

Dar followed her in silence, going over and over their options and ending up right where Kerry had no matter how she tried to make them work out differently.   So she left off trying and turned on her flashlight, playing it over the ground in front of where Kerry was walking.

Her shoulders ached, from the climbing.  Her hands hurt even more from the rope.  She could still feel the jarring shock of falling in those milliseconds of holy crap before she hit the ground.

Now that she had a few minutes to think, she did think about falling.

She remembered that moment of panic when she felt the rope give way and she’d gone head over heels downward and then somehow in mid air she’d found herself twisting round like a gymnast to get her legs under her and her knees unlocked before impact.

In the dark. In the rain.  It had gone from being terrifying to ordinary in a breath and she really had no idea why.

No idea. No idea what they should do now.  Ahead of her she could hear the group talking, and the pace picking up as they approached the shelter, voices rising in relief as they found the shelter in the glow of their flashlights and for some damn reason her mind was focused on that kid she’d left up on the wall.

She had zero obligation.  She had done all she could and had risked her life in the bargain because if she’d been higher or had fallen less accurately it would have been a completely different story and then what? What if shed landed and been crippled? Broken her back or her legs?

Or her neck?

“Dar?”

Zero obligation to him.  “Yeah?” But what obligation did she have to her own conscience?

Kerry had paused, just at the edge of the rocks. Dar came up behind her and put her hand on her shoulder, and nudged her gently. “Lets go inside.”  She said. “At least to get our gear.”

They went around a boulder and into the calm of the overhang, where the rest of the group was already spreading out with looks of relief.  They were all wet, and many were limping and the expressions of exhaustion were not in the least feigned.

“You had a fire here?” Rich was kneeling down, his hand extended.

“We just covered it when we went looking for you.” Kerry came over and pulled her pack over to her, opening it and pulling out the plastic  bag she’d put the remaining venison in. “Here.”

Voices lifted in surprised delight. “Holy crap!”  Rich sat down, putting a shaking hand up to his head. “I’m about to fall down I’m so hungry.”

Its not much, but.. “ Kerry handed the bag to Marcia, who had come over to sit next to her. “Something killed a deer a little ways away.”

Marcia divided the contents and everyone just sat down where they were, wet or not, dressed or not, and started chewing on the tough, greasy meat without restraint, even the vegans. 

Kerry got up and went over to sit next to Dar, who was leaning back against the rock wall, eyes slightly unfocused. “You know what?” She asked, after a few moments of just watching the rest of them.  

“I’m about to know something.” Dar smiled briefly, reaching over and putting her hand on Kerry’s knee, the edge of her thumb rubbing gently against the wet fabric “And knowing you it’ll be worth the knowing.”

Kerry paused and regarded her in silence. “I love you.” She stated, after a pause.

Dar’s pale eyes twinkled a little, now visible as the fire had been re stoked.  “I do know that.” She said, clearing her throat a little. “Willing to bet if it was me hanging on that wall you’d have been trying a lot harder to get these guys to help.”

Wow.  Kerry cocked her head to one side slightly. “Of course I would.” She  said. “But you and I, Dardar, we know what the true value of loving each other is.”

And as she said it, and as they stared into each other’s eyes, she felt a deep resonance she’d only felt a few times before – a sense of a history between them she knew logically did not exist. 

But when Dar lifted her hand up and she fit her own into it, and their fingers clasped, it was like they were sharing a private joke of the subconscious. 

“So what did that moron do?” Rich asked, looking up at them.  “Sorry to be an asshole but there was no way I was going to go haul him out of a ditch.”

Kerry half turned to face him. “Well, he was trying to climb the wall to see where they were, and if they could signal someone.” She explained. “He slipped and pulled his arm out of it’s socket, and he’s hanging probably three stories off the ground.”

She had everyone’s attention. 

“Shit.” Janet had stopped chewing.  “How long has he been up there?”

“Couple hours.” Kerry said. “So, naturally Dar climbed up to try and help him.” She rested her hands on her knees. “There was a rope hanging down so she went up it and got his shoulder re set.” She continued.  “That’s crazy painful, by the way.   Anyway, on the way down the rope came loose, but low enough so that Dar could land on her feet.”

“Whoa.” Rich said, sounding impressed.

“But we knew there wasn’t much else we could do but come find you all for help.” Kerry concluded. Kerry concluded. “I felt bad leaving him there. Dar said he’d passed out from it. But what else could we do?” She made her tone gently inquiring. “People are still people, you know?”

The apprehensive discomfort from the group was almost a tangible thing. Kerry worked to keep any judgement from her expression and her words. “So, Dar and I are going to go back there with them, even if they’ve been really jerky. “ She paused. “I know how I would feel if it were me, with someone I cared for stuck up there.”

Dar waited until she was sure Kerry was finished with her sweetly Midwestern kicks in the groin. “He’s probably going to die. It’s too cold.” She said, briefly. “We’ll take some of those tarps.”

Kerry got up and shouldered her pack, handing Dar’s over. Then she pulled her hood up and went to the edge of the shelter, not turning her head for an instant as she moved back out into the rain with an inner sense of rightness impossible to ignore.

Useful or not, smart or dumb, maybe pointless – did it matter? “We should have grabbed that damned sat phone.” She remarked, as their boots crunched against the gravel.

“I did.” Dar smiled into the darkness. “They were all too busy grabbing meat to notice”

Ahh, my hero.”

**

Continued in Part 9