Rachel woke with a start, unsure what had roused her. The fire was still burning but was low and not putting off much heat. Wrapped in the parachute canopy she was cold, but not as cold as she’d been. Checking, she was relieved when she could feel her fingers and toes, cautiously reaching up to check her ears and nose.
Maybe some frostbite to the tops of her ears but there was nothing she could do about that at the moment. Working her way free of the nylon she sat up and began piling more wood on the fire. Her hands ached and she flexed her fingers as she looked down.
The ring finger on her left hand was missing, having been shot off by John during a fight with an infected female in a lake in Georgia. That seemed like a lifetime ago. She shook her hand, trying to ease the pain of the finger that wasn’t there. Phantom limb pain. She’d had an introductory class to it in medical school, taught by a VA Doctor, and knew it was a real thing. She just never imagined she’d experience it firsthand.
The wind had died down but snow continued to fall. It was still light, so the sun was shining brightly somewhere above the thick overcast, but Rachel had no idea what time of day it was or how long she’d been out. There could still be several hours of daylight or it could be dark in another twenty minutes.
Looking around, her heart fluttered as she thought about the wolf. It could have come up while she slept and dragged her off, or killed her on the spot. Was it afraid of the fire? Maybe that had saved her but she wasn’t going to take it for granted that the animal wouldn’t approach just because of the open flames.
Standing, she grimaced in pain as her joints screamed at her for lying on the frozen ground. At least she’d had the nylon to act as a ground sheet and provide some insulation or she might very well not have woken up. Thinking about freezing to death she turned to look at Bill, shocked when his body wasn’t there.
Rachel stood staring dumbly at the ground for several seconds, not understanding why the pilot’s corpse wasn’t exactly where she’d last seen it. Then she saw the disturbed snow that was already filling in as more fell.
There was a smooth path where the surface had been compacted by the body being dragged across it. Next to that were deep impressions that looked like dog prints. Only she knew it wasn’t a dog that had made then, rather a larger and more vicious canine cousin. The wolf had come into the camp and taken Bill’s corpse!
A chill that had nothing to do with the weather ran down Rachel’s spine. The wolf had come right into camp! It had been within feet of her as she slept! But why had it taken the body instead of her? She didn’t know anything about wolves, in fact probably knew more about the fictional lycans from bad movies and even worse books.
Shivering again, she piled more wood onto the fire until it was a roaring blaze and she had to back up against the windbreak because of the heat. Driven snow had piled several feet high against the windward side of the canopy and provided a firm surface for her to lean against. She didn’t realize that that the snow itself had added to the protection the nylon provided and helped her survive the storm.
The emergency locator beacon! Rachel lurched to her feet when she remembered the pilot telling her that help would be on the way and would locate them by following the signal from the transmitter sewn into the shoulder of his flight suit. How far would the wolf drag the body?
What if it damaged the radio when it began feasting on the corpse? What if searchers arrived, saw the remains of the pilot’s body and didn’t bother to look any further for her? She had to get the beacon or she would die out here. But how would she find Bill’s remains? And if she found him, would the wolf be there, guarding its meal?
Rachel stood for what felt like a long time, staring into the fire as she tried to decide what to do. She didn’t know if John was alive or dead. The last she’d seen of him he’d been going into a cavern system in Oklahoma to rescue Katie. Even if he had beaten the odds and emerged, how would he know she was in trouble?
And while she didn’t know the geography of the western US very well, she did know that Idaho was a long way away from Oklahoma. How would he even get here to save her? For that matter, if he successfully rescued Katie, would he even try or would he just write her off as lost?
She shook her head at the last thought. She had gotten to know John very well and had no doubt that if he knew of her plight and was able, he would be doing everything in his power to come for her. But she knew she couldn’t count on him saving her this time. There was just too much distance between them. She had no one but herself, and she needed that beacon.
Rachel didn’t know that the Navy had been forced to abandon their attempts to reach the crash site. Two SAR flights out of Whidbey had been shot down by Russian patrols and the invaders were tightening their control of the skies over the western part of the continent. Nothing that wasn’t part of the Russian military was flying.
With no way to know this and not understanding that the locator beacon was of no use, Rachel took a moment to check over Bill’s pistol. Satisfied it was ready for use, but lacking confidence in her ability to wield it, she stuffed it into a pocket. Finding the flare gun she made sure a fresh shell was loaded and thrust it into a pouch on her G-suit’s leg.
Spreading out the canopy she had wrapped herself in to sleep, she carefully cut each of the lines that were attached to the perimeter. Coiling the ropes as she freed them she placed them in a neat pile in the snow. Folding the nylon several times, she held it down with her knees and cut a slit in the middle of the rectangle she had created.
Lifting the canopy she pushed her head through the slit, the multiple layers staying as she had folded them and falling around her body like a long poncho. She used one of the ropes as a belt, cinching the material tightly around her waist, thinking she must look like some medieval monk.
But she didn’t care what she looked like, only cared that the fabric added several layers of insulation and would help keep her warm. The light was fading as she moved to the edge of the lake and drank deeply. With a sigh of fear she selected a thick tree branch that was about three feet long.
Knowing the wood wouldn’t burn well on its own, she dug through Bill’s survival pouch until she found the small packet of sunblock she’d noted earlier. Hoping the substance was oil based, she set it aside and fumbled with the G-suit’s zipper until she accessed the cotton T-shirt she was wearing, cutting a few strips off the hem. Squeezing the entire contents of the packet onto the end of the branch, she wrapped the pieces of material tightly around and tied them off.
Squeezing the fabric, she worked the thick, white gel into it then pushed the end of the branch into the fire. It caught immediately and when she raised it over her head it burned brightly.
Standing, Rachel held the torch high and looked down at the marks in the snow left behind by the wolf. It was nearly dark but there was enough light from the end of the burning tree branch for her to see clearly. Steeling her resolve she drew the pistol and held it in her hand as she began following the tracks.