The night passed slowly. Rachel and Bill had heard the wolves several times, but as each of the howls floated through the air it sounded a good distance away. They were unable to sleep, shivering as the wind continued to strengthen and the temperature dropped. Sometime in the middle of the night Bill had piled several larger branches on the fire and built it up until they had to move back to keep from being burned. But it provided heat. Enough that they survived.
The day brightened slowly, a low layer of steel grey clouds pressing down over their heads. There was no sunrise, just a steady increase in the light. Returning from relieving herself behind a large tree, Rachel looked up at the sky. To the north the clouds were even heavier, the bottoms appearing swollen and dark. In the south, where she was from, that would mean a hell of a rainstorm was approaching. With the temperature of the wind blowing in her face she was afraid they were about to get a lot of snow.
“What are we going to do?” Rachel asked, holding her hands out to the warmth of the roaring fire.
“We’ve got some serious weather coming,” Bill said, squatting next to her and looking at the northern sky. “We need to get a shelter built but we need water, too. We’ve already depleted my entire survival ration. When we were coming down I saw a lake northeast of here. We should move there.”
“But how is anyone going to find us? Shouldn’t we stay where we came down?”
Bill reached up and patted a bulge in the shoulder of his flight suit. “Distress beacon that was activated when we ejected. It’s transmitting our location every five minutes. They’ll be along to get us but it may take them some time. While we’re waiting it’s up to us to survive.”
Rachel nodded, wishing for the hundredth time in the past few hours that John and Dog were with her.
“Then we’d better get moving,” she said. “I don’t think it’s going to be long before that storm gets here.”
Working together they smothered the fire with dirt scraped up with their bare hands. Flames extinguished, Bill gathered up their parachutes, shoving the fabric and lines back into the packs.
“Why are we taking these?” Rachel asked, helping.
“The canopies will make great weather breaks when we get a shelter built and the lines can be used for all kinds of things. They’re strong as hell and we’ll be needing rope.” Bill helped Rachel shrug into her chute.
Parachute on his back, he shouldered the small survival pouch and after checking his compass headed across the clearing. He walked with the pistol in his hand, Rachel sticking close to his side with the flare gun in hers.
“That was pretty impressive. The flare gun with the wolf,” he said as they walked.
“I’ve got a friend who likes to say, “you fight with what you have”.” Rachel answered with a smile as she thought about John. “I’m just glad it worked. Did you see the size of that thing?”
“I’m not sure how much damage my pistol would have done,” he answered as they reached the far edge of the clearing.
They paused before crossing into the forest. Even with the heavy cloud cover the clearing was brightly lit, but the forest was much darker. Trees soared above their heads, thick boughs of pine branches spreading and blocking much of the weak light that made it through the overcast.
“Think they’re around?” Rachel asked, referring to the wolves.
“Yes,” Bill answered. “I doubt we’ve seen the last of them.”
He stepped over a fallen tree and into the forest. Rachel followed, looking in every direction as she thought about the terror that she had seen the night before.
“I thought wolves had been wiped out in North America,” she said a few minutes later.
“Mostly, but the government started re-introducing them a few years ago. Maybe even longer than that. I remember reading something about it. They started in Montana and the ranchers were up in arms because the wolves were killing their livestock. Don’t know how that all got worked out. Guess there’s some here too.”
The conversation died and they kept walking. The forest floor was rougher going than Rachel had expected. It was littered with fallen tree branches and the occasional rotting log. Most of them could be stepped over but occasionally they encountered a downed tree that was so large in diameter they had to walk around it. The going was slow and despite shivering from the cold wind she could feel sweat trickling down her back.
The wind wasn’t as strong in the forest as it had been in the clearing, which was a relief, but the sound it made as it sighed through the trees was so loud that they couldn’t hear anything else. Their footsteps seemed muted and distant, covered by the noise from over their heads.
Rachel had learned enough from John to realize the sound of any approaching enemy would also be masked and knew she couldn’t rely on her hearing as an early warning system. Constantly scanning around and behind them was tiring and slowed their progress. As they kept moving she was fairly certain they were being stalked.
Every ten to fifteen minutes Bill would stop to check his compass, frequently adjusting their course. Staying on a steady heading in a forest is all but impossible without the aid of something that will reliably point north. On one of their stops Rachel held her breath when she caught movement at the edge of her vision. Snapping her head around she almost laughed when a large rabbit hopped over a tree branch to start munching on a stunted bush.
“Hungry?” Bill asked, raising the pistol and taking aim.
“Wait!” Rachel reached out and touched his arm. He lowered the pistol and gave her an irritated look.
“Don’t tell me you’re worried about killing the cute little bunny,” he said with a sarcastic tone in his voice.
“Don’t be an asshole,” Rachel said, staring right back at him. “If you kill it, we’re going to have to take it with us to cook later. Right?”
Bill nodded. “So?”
“You shoot it, it’s going to bleed. You really think it’s a good idea to be walking around with raw meat? With wolves in the neighborhood?”
“Shit!” Bill exclaimed, lowering the pistol.
He was embarrassed and they didn’t have any more conversation for some time. That was fine with Rachel as the terrain steadily became more rugged. They were climbing and had already been at a higher altitude than she’d ever been in her life. It was hard to catch her breath in the thin air and she needed every bit she had just to keep moving.
Bill stopped again to check his compass and Rachel noticed his watch. It was noon. They’d been walking for at least four hours and were still climbing. Where the hell was this lake?
“How much farther?” She asked when he pointed at the updated direction for their trek.
“You’re guess is as good as mine,” he answered, somewhat petulantly. Really? Still pouting because a woman had thought of something he hadn’t?
“Well, I don’t have a guess. I didn’t see the lake, you did. So what’s your guess?” Rachel asked with as much patience as she could muster, realizing that John had spoiled her.
He wasn’t worried about little things like whose idea it was or who might know more about something. She’d quickly forgotten how condescending many men were just because she didn’t have a pair of balls between her legs, and how threatened they were if she happened to be right about something.
“Maybe another couple of hours,” he finally said and started walking without waiting to see if she was ready.