Tuesday, February 09, 2010

The Survivors

The men picked their way gingerly down the side of the ridge, traversing through the snow in broad snowshoes made of hard white ash, steadying themselves when they could against the trunks of the pines. Though the trail that lay beneath was deeply covered and only a few jagged rocks poked through the surface of the snow to interfere with their descent, the men knew that if they trod where it was too steep the slope could easily give way and bury them. It was only their second day out but already it seemed much longer.

A pale and gauzy sun lingered just above the horizon, casting the last feeble illumination of a dismal but snowless afternoon. There would be no moon that evening and so before long, as soon as they made it to level ground, they would have to camp for the night

Before the onset of winter they had smoked and dried as much game and fish as they could, not as much as in the best years perhaps but more than in the worst. Then the storms came, early and constant, the deer starved or headed for lower ground, and the snow was too deep to follow them. Inexorably their stocks had dwindled, until it was clear that there wouldn't be enough to keep them all alive until spring. They left what remained for the women and children and those too ill or old to make the trip; there might be enough to do for them at least. If the men reached the lowlands they would barter for food with the skins they carried in bundles on their backs, and return when the thaws came.

Seven had started out, but only four remained. Up in their hollow, in the shelter of their cabins and their fires, they had been safe, but once on the trail it was a different story. Though the travelers carried nothing but staves and short knives they knew that their pursuers wouldn't challenge them directly. Instead, they kept their distance, shadowing them from behind the trees, until one of the men struggled in the snow and began to fall behind. Then they would seize their moment and circle in, swiftly and quietly. When the first scream came the other men knew better than to turn around. There was nothing they could do and it would all be over quickly anyway. The ravens would take care of the scraps. After that they would be safe for a while, a few hours perhaps, but they knew that they would be accompanied on their journey until the hunger of their hunters was extinguished. They would have to travel for three more days, maybe four; if they were lucky two or three of the men might make it through.

When they completed their descent they turned and walked along the base of the ridge into a little wood of laurel and pine. Before the last twilight flickered out they settled under a ledge, cleared away as much snow as they could, then removed their gloves and set a small fire, just enough to dry their hands and bring back some feeling to their frostbitten fingers. They melted snow in a small wooden bowl and slaked their thirst, each in his turn. As the fire died away the men huddled together and fell into fitful and frigid sleep; beyond, somewhere in the darkness, the others bided their time.

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