Under The Weather

Entry by: mmaynard

13th February 2014
They lit out of the cabin near midday. The storm had rolled in the night before and they'd stuck it out though the morning, hoping for a break, but got none. The light was flat and the bottom of the clouds and the top of the new fallen snow on the peaks bled into the rough canvas of an obliterated horizon.

Williams took the lead. He'd grown up not far from the cabin and had a sense of how the jumble of peaks and ridges arranged themselves toward the points of the compass. Howard hauled the bulk of their food and kept the skin of water inside his jacket to keep it from freezing.

The leather lacework of their snowshoes seemed to do little to keep them floating on the three feet of new fallen snow, but both men knew that if they'd taken them off, their feet would punch through like fenceposts and leave them hopelessly mired to their crotches.

The men were quiet in their exertions, saving their breath for the long trudge downhill and back to Mill Creek.

As they crested the ridge, Williams knew that the lake spread its pale blue mirror somewhere out below them to the left, but it was invisible through the thick flakes and cold fog. Two drainages forked away from them and, estimating their spot on the ridge, he called back over his shoulder.

"Stay right! This'll take us home."

Howard was quiet but Williams could hear the squeak of his snowshoes behind him as they traversed their way down the steep and narrow slot.

After a couple hours, Howard overtook him and tapped his bamboo pole to the top of Williams' pack.

"Let's eat something."

Williams led them up the far side of the little gully that spun through the trees below them and out of sight. When he reached a cluster of big pines he slid out of his pack and wedged it up against one of the massive trunks. Howard did the same with his after unpacking a canvas bedroll and a small bag of dried meat. Spreading the canvas atop the packs the men had a small place on which to sit and eat, keeping their torsos out of the snow.

"How much longer?" Howard spoke out of the corner of his mouth as he worked at the tough pieces of dried elk.

"It's slow going. At this pace we should hit the meadows in a few hours and follow the flatbank all the way back to camp."

"I'll cut trail after lunch." Howard said it not in offering, but as if he'd already made his decision.

"I know the way. Why don't you let me lead us out."

"You found the right crick, now we just follow it down. I can tell my down hill from my up."

Williams nodded his assent. The cold air had been stabbing at his chest for a while and his legs were already stiff from carefully packing a trail for the two. When the canvas had been rerolled, he shouldered his pack and followed Howard's ghostlike silhouette down through the thickening weather.

After not having to pick his way down in a serpentine fashion for the two men, Williams became mesmerized by the dance of the falling flakes which stuck to his lashes and stung his eyes. He focused on the oblong depressions made in the snow by Howard's snowshoes and was startled to feel a jolt as his own shoe came to rest on the tail of one of Howard's.

Williams looked up to see why they'd stopped. They were in a flat spot where the small creek should have continued to descend amongst the pines and granite walls. Just ahead were the unexpected coach whip stems of willows poking from the snow.

He felt a cold stab in his aching belly. They were in the wrong drainage.

Williams picked up his foot and removed it from the tail of Howard's shoe. There was nothing to say that wasn't obvious to both men.

"I musta picked the wrong drainage. We're one over from where we're s'posed to be."

Howard, his back still to Williams, nodded.

"Let me lead down this flat water Dan."

Howard stepped aside to let Williams pass on his right. They didn't make it more than twenty yards before the snow began to give way beneath them, their snowshoes plunging awkwardly into the hollows of tangled willow branches beneath. The trickle of the creek could be heard in the darkness below their feet. What would have taken them minutes in clean snow would now take them hours to pick and fight their feet through. The wind blew up the flat little gully which would take them miles away from the meadows - if this gully drained into Mill Creek at all. Williams looked through a thicket of pines to his left and followed the darkness of the ridge that now loomed above them. On the other side of it, the canyon he'd meant to lead them down descended to the meadows below and, beyond that, the wide banks that would have taken them down to Mill Creek and the warmth of camp.

"I'll split the food between our packs in case we get split up in the dark of the storm. Or the night." Howard's voice was flat and didn't reveal the fear that Williams knew was creeping through his bones too.

Quietly, the two men divided the weight they'd have to carry on through the storm. And maybe for the rest of their lives.
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