Beneath him the hills fell away into what had to be the valley of the Tate River; beyond, etched against the clouds, were Mt. McCutcheon, Rampart Peak, and Mount Carter. Above and on either side of him towered Saddle Mountain and Davis Peak. He strained his memory; this would be the valley of Rube Creek – no, of Dog Creek. To get out he would have to follow Dog Creek to the Tate, then turn upstream and follow the river to the highway. He estimated the distance at between twenty and thirty miles.
He would never make it in his condition.
Then he realized that if he could see landmarks, a signal fire could also be seen. Looking around, he chose a dead cedar that stood alone. Dragging burning wood from his shelter, he built a fire against its base, cutting boughs and piling them high. Dense black smoke boiled up as the branches caught. Within minutes, the entire tree was blazing like a torch and Tim had to retreat from the heat. But the clouds were rapidly closing in and Tim knew that his fire had been started too late. He watched disheartened as the landmarks were eaten up one by one by the lowering clouds.
Tim continued to stand near the burning cedar. He was bitterly disappointed. If the clouds had held back for even ten minutes, the ranger station at Mt. McCutcheon would have seen his fire and would have sent someone to investigate. Instead, his fate was still in his own hands.
Food and a hide – he had to have both. And now, not later.
As he hunted, he found that he had plenty of deer to chose from. Muleys were out in record numbers scrounging among the drifts for food, and he heard the crash of antlers throughout the morning. Tim wasn’t sure if they were simply making up for lost meals, or because they sensed that this was only a lull in the storm.
He found a small set of tracks in the fresh snow. Keeping to the shadows of the trees, he advanced with arrow nocked, moving carefully from cover to cover. He carried the bow in his left hand with his fingers laced around the arrow while he gripped his crutch-club with his right hand. Tim floundered pitifully with that crutch, but he could not yet abandon it.
After a while he caught sight of his quarry and began to circle around upslope. It was a muley doe, feeding hurriedly but cautiously. He approached from above, keeping behind a stunted fir. She shied away but he remained perfectly still, and eventually she swung back to browse a manzanita below him. She was not aware of his presence or she would have run, but she stayed too far away for him to get a shot. She finished with the manzanita and moved closer. Tim sensed that he would get no better chance, so he drew and released. He saw the arrow arch true, but the deer had seen him move as he drew back his bow and she leaped away. The arrow brushed her flank as she bounded away, marking her with a harmless scratch.
* * *
The black bear was prowling. The slopes were alive with mule deer, but it was early in the season and they were not yet weak enough for him to run them down. Except in mid-winter, a black bear can usually only take fawns and carrion, and an an occasional lame, weak, or sick deer.
The black bear’s battered senses and infected face had combined with his stiffened leg to put him in a constant, killing rage. more tomorrow