Since the chase, the deer had laid up and had eaten heavily. His wound was mostly healed now and much of his strength had returned, but the bone of his foreleg was chipped and he could not put weight on it without pain.
Now something out of the ordinary was happening in the night. There was a suggestion of light low in the valley where there should be no light. The deer had watched it for nearly two hours, not alarmed because it was at a distance. Then, just after the snow began to fall, the human that had hurt him so badly and chased him so relentlessly appeared in the faint light. The deer froze, watching. After a while the human disappeared and the deer slipped away, moving as rapidly a his damaged foreleg would allow.
* * *
The snow had left its mark lightly on the land, with a few drifts beneath the trees and about an inch on the ground. When he smothered his fire with snow and started out, Tim found that his ankle had not stiffened with use. He felt better than he had since his adventure began.
The sky had cleared briefly about sunrise, and Tim had taken advantage of his opportunity to look for landmarks. He could see far across the slopes, but there was nothing in sight that he recognized. That puzzled him. He could not imagine being so far from the place he had set out to hunt.
He would have built up a signal fire in hopes of being seen by some ranger on fire watch, but the clouds closed in tight again within a few minutes.
Tim studied the high valley with care and wished for a pair of binoculars. Or a rifle. Or a helicopter. Or just a cell phone. He circled the valley, staying in the cover of the stunted trees, but all he found of his deer was a single frozen track, pointing upslope.
Why? Why, at the obvious beginning of winter, with snow already on the ground, was the muley going further into the mountains and away from its winter feeding grounds in the valley below? Had it seen him? If it had, it must have been last night when he walked out into the snow storm.
Tim stood irresolute, staring at the single track and feeling really scared for the first time. He had seen far enough down the mountain to know that it would take him days to walk out in his crippled condition. Hunger was already grinding at him. He could concentrate on the task at hand only by a major effort of will. His bare forearms were chapped and reddened by exposure, and corded with loss of weight. He was in real trouble.
He really had no choice. Without any hope of rescue, he had to save himself, and he could not hope to walk out without food. He was already weak and he would only become weaker.
He turned upslope, in the direction that single track pointed.
From time to time Tim found tracks. He did not need many, because the deer kept to the valley of the creek. About mid-morning, Tim came across a complete row of tracks that stood out clear in the fresh snow. These had been laid down since the storm. The deer’s injured foreleg had never touched the ground. That injury was Tim’s only advantage.
His disadvantage was his own ankle. This morning he was putting more weight on it and ignoring the ache. He hoped that he would be able to manage a hobbling run if it came to that, but he wasn’t sure. more next week