Up North – (day 4)

by

 Tony Noland

            Mitch pulled back the cuff of his glove to check his watch; stinging cold air snaked up his sleeve as he held his wrist up long enough for the compass to get a bearing. After keeping it motionless and level for the manufacturer’s recommended fifteen seconds, he brought it down and peered at it. After a moment, he stripped off his right-hand glove so he could push the illuminator button. South by south-west.

            He put his glove back on and shifted the rifle slung across his back. There was no need to read the watch’s built-in thermometer or barometer – he knew all he needed to. He’d drifted again, he was who-knows-where on this damned slope, it was frickin‘ cold and now it was too long past sunset to read the watchface when it was two inches from his nose. The weather forecast for tonight had been for clear skies and 13F, but that was for over at Ishpeming. Out here in the middle of piss-all nowhere, and on the Lake Superior side no less, it was gonna get colder than that.

            Well, he thought, there’s nothin’ for it. I’m gonna die if I have to spend the night out here, so pride be damned. He fished out his cell phone to call Cary, tell him what happened, tell him to send some of the boys in one of the trucks to wait for him out on that old road on the southwest of the boundary. Fingers stiff with cold, Mitch turned the phone on, waited for it to power up. That fat guy, Merton… he seemed like the type that would have a good laugh over me, Mitch thought, and probably the first to get out his pocket knife. The tradition here in the Upper Pinensula was about the same as down in the Lower: if you wound a deer, but lose it in the tracking, you get your shirt-tail cut off and nailed to the deer camp wall. Mitch had been hunting off and on for thirty years and had never lost a tail yet. Still, he thought, I’d sooner get my tail cut by Cary’s in-laws than freeze my balls off.

            The phone made a triple chime. Mitch held it up to read the screen. SERVICE NOT AVAILABLE – NO SIGNAL.

            Oh, for cryin’ out loud, you can’t be serious! God damn the U.P., it was like being in the middle of the Sahara frickin’ Desert! For several minutes, Mitch waved the phone in the air, wandering with his arm upraised like a Statue of Liberty. Nothing. Swearing, he snapped it closed. He stood steaming in the cold. It didn’t take long for him to review his options, as they were the same as they had been ten minutes before – stay or go – except now, “go” didn’t include the chance of a ride back to camp. Stay here for the night in what shelter he could find, or make his way down to the old logging road. Once there, follow it over and around to the state road,then follow that up to the north access road and make his way back to the cabins. Mitch had his emergency stuff with him, but he wasn’t about to spend the night out here. There was no way of knowing how cold it was gonna get.

            He took out his photocopy of the map and examined it by the light of his phone. This section of state game land was 1681 acres of scrappy mixed pines, regrown from a clear-cut forty years ago.  Overall, it made an irregular kind of trapezoid laid over a couple of old glacial ridges. He traced his finger from where he guessed he was down to the edge of the map. Once he got to the logging road, it would be a good four, maybe five miles hike around the perimeter, depending on where he struck the road on coming out of the woods.

That long walk was bad enough, but it was getting to the logging road in the first place he was worried about. Walking in the woods at night was dangerous on ground you knew, let alone land you’d never been on before. It was too easy to walk into a low-hanging branch and put an eye out, or trip over a root and get your face smashed against a trunk. He’d heard stories as a boy that had made a big impression on him. No, he thought, he’d have to go slow, keep an arm up to protect his face. Experimentally, Mitch held his phone out. The glow from the screen made the ground fractionally lighter, the broken dusting of snow taking on a greenish tinge.

            After one more check of his compass heading, Mitch made his way cautiously forward, slipping a bit on the ground that sloped away to his left. Rather than go up the ridge to level ground, he followed the compass heading directly, so as to get to the road that much quicker. As he walked, he started to think of how he would tell the story once he got back to the camp. The boys would be worried, certainly, maybe even out looking for him. It didn’t occur to him that he might not make it. He figured he’d come in pretty blown from the hike; he wasn’t fat or anything, not obese, but it wasn’t like he did any kind of exercise, either.

            What should he tell them about the buck? Coming in empty handed, he’d get his tail cut and have to take a lot of ribbing, maybe for years, but it was obviously better to get lost after dark because you were chasing a big buck. Generally, the bigger the buck, the more excusable the getting lost. However, the bigger the buck, the more unbelievable the story, and they’d never belive the truth. For the boys, it’d be a simple case of him having gotten lost after dark because he was an idiot and then a liar after the fact. Even assuming the deer camp had one, swearing on a bible that it had been twenty-two points and big as a moose would do him no good. Mitch cursed, breathless. He wished now it hadn’t been such a damned big buck. Face to face with a monster like that, he’d gotten buck fever, bad, like he hadn’t had since he was a teenager. If it hadn’t been so fantastic a trophy, he’d have had a steadier hand, would have gotten off a cleaner shot. So, what to tell them? How much did he have to downsize that monster to get it to believable? Make him  eighteen points? Sixteen?

            He stopped to rest, his breath making great billows as he panted, lit white by the phone. The ground was rough going on the slope, broken and uneven, but now it was too steep to try to get up to the comparatively level ridgeline. The sweat was chilling on his face, and his breath fog was starting to freeze on his moustache and beard as he walked. A cold frickin‘ night, that’s for sure. He took out the candy bar he had stashed away, ate it in a few bites and wished he had another. He was thirsty.

In the darkness, the woods were coming alive around him. From ahead and behind, from all four points of the compass, in fact, he could hear the hooting of owls, some short and sharp, others long and drawn out. He listened as he rested. There were supposed to be a bunch of different kinds up here, but he didn’t know their names. He could recall barred owls and snowy owls from a TV show. What were the others? Northern owls? Could they be barn owls? He leaned against a tree, drawing deep breaths of the burning, icy air as he thought it over. There weren’t any barns up here. This was old logging and mining country, not farming. So, he thought, there wouldn’t be any barns, so there wouldn’t be an barn owls. More tired than he had been in a long time, he nodded at the sense he was making. It stood to reason. No barns, no barn owls. It only stood to reason.

With a shock, Mitch came to himself. What the hell was he doing, standing around thinking about frickin‘ birds in the middle of the frickin‘ woods? He realized that he was shivering. In the few minutes he’d been standing, his hands and feet had gone dangerously cold, prickly and tingling cold. Jesus Christ, he thought, get moving or you’re gonna die out here! He clapped his hands, feeling the stabs like he was gripping barbed wire.  The heavy rifle shifted around on his back as he stomped his feet, swearing at the ferocity of the pain in his heels. For several minutes he stomped and flapped his arms until he felt burning and stabbing pain in his toes, too.

At a quicker pace than before, he set off into the black woods. Follow the slope, Mitch boy, just follow the slope. Once you get to the road you can jog it, and that’ll do the trick. Just keep moving, just keep going and you’ll hit the edge of this ridge, then across the next one to the road. Follow the slope. He moved through the woods, his breath puffing out in great clouds as he panted. After a few minutes, as he moved forward along the hillside, he lowered the cell phone to flex his icy fingers and slap his arm against his side. With the very next step, he walked into a low branch that poked him hard in the forehead.

Terrified of losing an eye, he flung himself backwards, tripped on a root he’d already cleared and toppled over. With a crash, he fell sideways over the edge of a small drop-off lip and careened down the steep slope. The rifle barrel stabbed into the ground and levered him head over heels. As he rolled forward and down, the strap tore from his shoulder, slicing his cheek as he lost the gun. Raked by stones and whipped by saplings, he tumbled downwards into the darkness. In a child’s panic, he curled into a ball, using his arms to protect his face. He thudded down the slope, rolling and pounding until he smashed into a boulder at the bottom of the gully. He screamed as he felt his left arm break against the stone, then screamed again as his momentum carried him over the boulder to land amid the dry branches of a downed tree. Body cracking and snapping through them, he finally stopped when his forehead scraped along a heavy limb and he impacted, doubled over against the trunk.

For long minutes he lay, bleeding, insensate and incoherent, barely able to breathe. His first gasps became cries, and he writhed as he lay, little more than an animal, weeping in pain and cold. He cried and moaned, tears streaming and freezing on his face. Gradually, animal pain gave way to human rage. Thrashing in his stiff wooden cage, he bellowed and swore, tearing and kicking his way free to land on the icy stones of the creekbed. He landed on his right side, but the jar to his left arm was enough to make him cry out again. It was also enough to force him away from the looming spectre of shock and made him think about his situation with a clearer head as lay, moaning.

He was screwed, but how badly?

Mitch staggered to his knees, then to his feet. His left arm was broken, smashed near the wrist. This gulley wasn’t supposed to be here, so he had no idea where he was. It wasn’t even certain that he was still on the state game land, so the boys wouldn’t know where to look for him. He was in near total blackness, the new moon was only a pale sliver above the pines. His cell phone was up on the ridge somewhere, lost in the fall along with his rifle. Bleeding and battered, he could go no farther. As for staying, although there was no wind, that could change at any moment. There was no shelter nearby. Frigid air blew into his coat from the numerous rips and tears that opened him to the cold.

With a short prayer, not much more that a single, repeated word – please, please, please! – Mitch checked the inside pocket of his coat. They were there. Thank God, they were still there. He leaned his head against the trunk and wept afresh, this time in stupid relief. He was in trouble, bad trouble, but he had the mylar emergency blanket and the two packets of waterproof matches. In trouble, yes, screwed, yes, but not completely screwed. If he could make it to morning, he might survive all of this.

He stood back from the trunk and looked along the length of the tree. It angled upwards toward the hillside. By the starlight in the clear, cold sky, Mitch could just make out the gouged hole where the big pine had fallen, undercut by the stream. He started to shiver, and knew he didn’t have much time.

With his right arm, he reached up and sanpped off as much dry wood as he could carry. He tucked a few thick limbs underneath his left arm, swearing and shouting in pain as he did so. With his right arm he dragged longer and larger limbs, tangled and thick with branching twigs. Stumbling up and out of the gully, he piled the wood near the base of the tree, up and out of the frozen streambed. Unerneath the thick base, he set up in a hollow in the dirt where a stone had been dislodged by the tree’s fall.

His left arm was shrieking and both hands were numb by the time he’d broken a few double handsful of twigs and bark, getting larger sticks ready to feed the fire as it grew. With another prayer, Mitch struck a match and lit the dry leaves under his little pyramid of twigs. It guttered and went out. Four matches later, the leaves caught and began to burn up the twigs. Mitch gave the flames a bit of wood at a time, forcing himself not to smother the delicate little fire by trying to feed it too much, too fast. It grew, stinging his fingers with unaccustomed heat. By the time he was giving it sticks of finger thickness, he began to hope that he might make it.

He set the thicker branches in a rough box around the fire, and left it to get more wood. When he stood, his eyes were met with utter blackness. After leaning into the fire, it took a long time to readjust to starlight. By the time he could see, he was freezing again. Four times he went down to the gully to get dry wood small enough for him to break with bare hands, but big enough to burn long. He staggered with the fourth load and tumbled to the ground near the fire.Sobbing with the pain from his shattered, swollen arm, he could do no more. The stack of wood he’d ended up with was almost as big as he was, but would it last the night? He put some of the bigger pieces on, but felt no heat from the crackling fire.

Exhausted, he slowly, painfully unfolded the mylar emergency blanket and wrapped it around himself. He draped it over his shoulders and legs, leaving the front open to the fire to catch as much heat as he could. These blankets were supposedly invented by NASA, Mitch thought, his mind drifting and foggy with pain and fatigue. Supposed to retain something like ninety five percent of your body heat. Only three dollars, too. Might save my life, and for only three dollars. That’s pretty good, he thought. That’s pretty good.

Later that night, much later, with the wood gone and the fire burned low, its warmth pushed away from him by a steady breeze along the hillside, Mitch’s eyes flickered open and he saw his buck walk from the woods. It was magnificent, every bit as incredible as he’d remembered. Twenty two points, maybe more, a massive trophy rack as wide across as the banches of  a young oak. The buck glowed with a soft, brown light, with little glints of greenish fire at the tips of its antler tines. It moved silently, muscles rippling as it stepping gracefully and easily from stone to stone, never taking its eyes from Mitch. Silvery-red blood flowed from a gaping hole in its side. From his blanketed shelter, lying on the cold ground with the stars wheeling overhead, Mitch tried to lift his arms in supplication, to apologize, to say something, but he couldn’t. His mouth was too dry, his arms were too heavy, his blanketed nest on the frozen ground too warm and comfortable for him to move.

Close, closer, then close enough to touch, the buck looked at him for a long time with liquid black eyes. Fianlly, it turned away. Mitch sighed as the deer leaned back on its haunches, then leaped into the sky, leaving a trail of stars and light it its wake. The glittering shower spread across the open gully and washed over Mitch, making him feel forgiven and warm and safe and loved.

As the stars lit the snow, the owls hooted on through the night, filling the woods as they called to each other to contine their hunting.

///////////////////////////////

Tony would like to thank Jon Strother and Janet Aldrich for their assitance in beta-reading this story.

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19 Responses to “Up North – (day 4)”

  1. Carrie Clevenger

    This was magical and heartwarming. Here I was expecting something bad to happen. Carried out well!

  2. Tweets that mention Up North – (day 4) « 12 Days 2010! -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Icy Sedgwick, Tony Noland. Tony Noland said: "Here I was expecting something bad to happen." I guess you've read my Christmas fiction before? http://bit.ly/fEJfLu […]

  3. Susan May James

    A lovely tale! I loved this line… ‘leaving a trail of stars and light it its wake. The glittering shower spread across the open gully and washed over Mitch, making him feel forgiven and warm and safe and loved.’
    Well done.

  4. Patti Larsen

    Great descriptive writing and a tight story… I’m not a fan of hunting so the ending appealed to me!

  5. Tony Noland

    I’m glad you liked it, guys. This is based on a true story from one of my hunting trips. Loosely based, I should say.

  6. Lori Titus

    Perfect last line!

  7. Wulfie

    I’m surrounded by hunters and it’s evident that you have experience hunting and carried it well into this story. Well written. I loved the ending. Magical.

  8. Jim Bronyaur

    Awesome Tony! Awesome… I can “be there” as I remember the days of hunting with my Dad. 🙂

  9. Chuck Allen

    You certainly brought me into the story. I was getting cold until he started that fire. Great story!

  10. LindaSW

    This ended up much gentler than I thought it would. Very nice ending, and lots of great details. But now I need a hot toddy! Peace…

  11. Tony Noland

    Thanks for reading, guys. I’m glad it made you feel chilly – there’s something to be said for having a physical response to a story.

  12. Stephen

    Mother Nature in all of her splendor and fury can certainly place a spotlight on our fears and change our way of thinking. A good story.

  13. Cecilia Dominic

    I’m not a big fan of hunting, but I enjoyed this one. Great ending imagery and line. Even if he doesn’t make it out, his last moments are peaceful. And if he does, hopefully he won’t get overconfident again.

    CD

  14. David G Shrock

    A nice warm feeling with this chilly adventure.

  15. Rebecca

    Wonderful descriptions here, Tony, I could picture him huddled by the fire. Loved the magical ending.

    I also like the way you leave us wondering whether Mitch was rescued or not…

  16. Icy Sedgwick

    This kind of landscape is utterly alien to me but I could picture it perfectly. Excellent descriptions.

  17. Cindy Mantai

    The buck at the end was a brilliant touch. Great story.

  18. adampb

    A magical ending. Great descriptive power in this story, Tony.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  19. Tony Noland

    Thanks for reading & commenting, everyone. I’m glad this resonated for so many of you.

    If you’ve ever been hunting where the weather gets cold early in the season, you’ll know that this is not far off the mark. The woods in winter can be lethal, even without supernatural forces.

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