November Chugach Mountains
Shoulders and back hunched forward, head bent only a few feet from the snow, he made a slow, steady ascent up the lower southern ridge of the mountain. He bedecked an enormous fur hat that engulfed his head and neck. His shadow against the snow resembled a Kodiak bear. Every step elicited a grunt, and his body rocked in soft cadence left and right, left and right, bearing the weight of the sled behind him. Now and then, his bent knees sank onto his snowshoes. He’d pause to catch his breath, then continue. Each hand gripped a thick rope draped over his shoulders and locked together just under his chin. Behind him, dragging and weaving in his path, was a toboggan carrying six rectangular parcels wrapped in woolen blankets.
He was past the ice fields at the base of the mountain. The remote, majestic peak of Mount Marcus Baker soared, its snow-decked western face reflecting the rose and lavender hues of twilight. He knew this mountain, the highest of the Chugach range, boasting more snowfall than anywhere else in the world. Even expert climbers described its ascent as treacherous. But he would navigate only its lower ridges --- snow masses covering plateaus of ice sheets, blade-sharp edges and deep cornices, eroding, steep rock slopes, and glaciers. Snowflakes brushed his cheeks and nose. He wiped them away with his thick woolen glove, looking ahead into the expanse. Just me and this sled, he thought. He arranged the ropes across his shoulders and trudged forward. Minutes later, he stopped, loosened his hands from the ropes, and sank to his knees. Every muscle ached. He lay down in the snow.
He woke suddenly, sat up quickly, snow tumbling from his coat and hat. By instinct, he grabbed the rifle at his side. He surveyed the space around him in erratic, hurried glances. Only snow, trees, and mountains. The sun had drifted low in the western sky, and he realized he'd been asleep for hours. He heard the faint hoot of a boreal owl. The deep snow would make his journey more perilous. He cleared the snow off the parcels, setting the rifle down on the toboggan and fastening it in place with rope. Hunger clawed at his stomach, and he pulled out some beef jerky and peanuts in his pockets. That would hold him until he got to the cabin.
Invigorated by sleep, he gripped the ropes in each hand and started the climb. For an hour, he made good progress, switchbacking on the steeper sections and pushing straight ahead on its flatter, more forgiving lengths. He began to hum his grandmother’s bedtime song. She'd sit at the edge of his bed, her soft voice the only sound he heard before sleep. "Mama's here, and the birds are sleeping, warm and safe in the branches of the night. Mama's here, and our dreams are waking, gentle and tender till the morning's light." Gone forty years, he could still hear her melodic voice and see her warm smile.
Through the dense snowfall, he caught sight of the deserted trapper's shed perched on the ridge three hundred feet above him. The structure stood no more than eight feet tall, its slanted roof partially caved in. The door, half-hinged to its wood frame, was jammed with snow, forcing the door slightly ajar. Rotted timber along the sides exposed gaps in the walls. A sheet of snow covered the floor. He let go of the ropes, hastened to unbuckle his snowshoes, rushed to the door, pushed it open, and stood inside. A thick sheet of snow covered the floor. A stone fireplace was cluttered with piles of ashes and half-burnt coal bits, a wood table and chair, and a mattress propped up against the wall. He pulled the chair out and plopped on it with a deep sigh. His body filled half the room. After a few minutes, he made a fire and dragged the toboggan into the hut as Cyrus had instructed. He’d warm himself by the fire and sleep a few hours.
"Come on, little ones," he whispered softly, fanning the embers amid the soot and twigs. Dry logs were stacked next to the fireplace, and he added one, then another, soon warming the cold room. He pulled off his damp boots and socks and laid them on the mantle, then shoved his feet close to the fire. He devoured the remaining dark chocolate and beef jerky, the last of the snacks he'd packed for the trip. No food in the cabin. He lay back, pressing his backbone flatly against the cold wood floor, and gazed at the sky through the crevices in the roof. He listened to the crackling fire.
He slept unaware. Cold air and light rallied him to consciousness. The fire had long extinguished, and his fingers and toes were numb. His breath vaporized. He shook his arms and legs, restoring blood to his extremities, rolled over on his side, got to his knees, then rose to his feet with a grunt. No time for another fire, he thought. Cyrus will be here.
The whirl of the helicopter rotors cut through the arctic air. Huske threw on his coat and hat and rushed outside the cabin. The Enstrom F-28F was hovering overhead, floating down toward a flat, pancake-shaped circle still visible through the snowfall. It rocked slightly then landed on the ground as the rotors slowed and stopped. Cyrus and T-Bone stepped out of the helicopter.
"Cyrus, T-Bone!” he yelled. He stretched both arms in an exaggerated bow.
“Knew you’d be here,” T-Bone called back,” even with that storm last night.”
“Seen a lot worse," he said, hugging T-Bone. He turned to greet Cyrus, who was walking past him toward the cabin.
“Got the packages, Huske? Cyrus asked in a low monotone.
“Yes, sir,” replied Huske. "They're all inside the cabin; nothing's touched 'em but snow.”
T-Bone swung his arm around Huske’s shoulders, and they walked into the cabin. Cyrus stood next to the frozen parcels on the floor, looking at the fireplace, and shaking his head. “This place's nothing but rotten wood, ashes, and dirt," he said. ”Fit for an animal." He lit a cigarette and flicked the match into the air. He stepped over to the tobaggan with the stacked packages. "Get these out of here. There should be sixty packets, ten in each parcel. Count them as you go, and make sure you count right. Put thirty in each of those leather bags."
T-Bone picked up several packets and nodded to Huske. They carried them outside and dropped them in the snow near the helicopter.
“What are these, boss?” asked Huske cheerfully. “I dragged ‘em ten miles, and I don't even know what's in 'em.” He chuckled and gave T-Bone a playful shove.
Cyrus jerked his head around and jabbed his finger into Huske’s chest. “Don’t go askin’ me any questions, you hear?
Huske backed away. “Don’t mean nothin' by it, boss," he muttered, his eyes downcast, looking at his chest where Cyrus' finger had been. Huske knelt down and tossed another parcel into the bag. “That’s ten,” he whispered to himself.
“Get the bags in the bird,” Cyrus ordered T-Bone. Huske picked up one of the bags and followed T-Bone. “Not so fast, old man,” said Cyrus. Huske put the bag down. Cyrus was aiming a gun at him.
“This gun’s loaded, and I'll use it if I have to. Go get all your stuff, Huske, and set it in front of T-Bone. Cyrus darted his eyes between Huske and T-Bone but kept the gun steadied on Huske.
“What the hell you doing, Cyrus?” T-Bone shouted.
Cyrus ignored the question. "Move, Huske. get your gear and clothes out of the hut.” “Hurry up.” Cyrus gestured with the gun toward the cabin.
Huske glanced at T-Bone, his thoughts scattering. Was he in on this too? T-Bone was staring at the ground, shaking his head. Huske walked into the hut, tossed his coat, hat, and gloves into the knapsack, and then picked up the rifle. For an instant, he considered coming out rifle first. Shoot Cyrus, talk to T-Bone, then maybe shoot him. Huske heard them shouting at each other. He might be able to move fast enough if Cyrus were distracted. Through the open door, he could see the gun still pointing at him. Risk too high. He grabbed the rifle, threw the knapsack over his shoulder, and pulled the toboggan behind him.
“Put the rifle and the bag in front of T-Bone. Move it!”
“Cyrus, why are you doing this? I did everything just as you said.”
“I told you, never ask me questions.” Cyrus moved closer. “Now put that stuff on the ground over by T-Bone.”
“No.” Huske dropped the rifle and bag where he was standing. “I’m done taking your orders.”
Cyrus swung the gun across Huske’s head, hitting just above his left ear. Huske fell sideways, a few feet from T-Bone. Cyrus kicked him several times in the stomach and head. Before he passed out, Huske saw T-Bone’s face close to his, bending down over him, yelling at his father. Then the hum of rotor blades.
He woke to the sound of his own moans. The helicopter, parcels, rifle, and knapsack were gone. Only the empty toboggan remained, the ropes lifting lightly with gusts of wind and snow dust atop its wooden slats. With each breath, his broken nose wheezed, and his abdomen throbbed. He remembered the kicks. The slightest movement induced agony, but he had to turn on his back so he could breathe easier. He shifted his weight gradually, slowing his breathing to short, shallow gasps. His eyes opened, focusing on the clouds in the sky to orient himself. A bald eagle glided by. Something pressed on the palm of his hand, a piece of paper, crunched into a compact, damp ball. He unfolded it and read: Back in two days. It was T-Bone’s handwriting. He slipped it inside his pocket.
He lay motionless. The frigid air pressed down on his chest. He moved his head sideways several times, clenched his fingers together, relieved to feel them tingle to his touch. He stretched his legs, then waved his arms up and down like a bird trying its wings for a first flight. A few minutes later, he was kneeling on the snow, crawling to the cabin. He pushed open the door, noticing at once that his leather mitts, jacket, headlamp, and snowshoes were gone. There was no wood near the fireplace; they must have dumped it in the snow. He had no means to hunt for food, no water, no way to travel down the mountain, no dry wood for warmth. He knew they wouldn't be back; they'd left him here to die.
Tears streamed down his pock-marked cheeks into his thick, tangled beard. He crossed his burly arms, wiped the blood away from his eyes, and cradled his head. I have to move, he thought, or I’ll starve or freeze to death. He was thirsty, and the loss of blood left him dizzy. He bent over to lace his boots and recoiled from stabs of pain shooting through his abdomen. He wrapped a thread-thin blanket around his shoulders and limped to the door. An hour of sunlight left. Not much chance of getting down, he thought. But I'd rather die on mountain snow than on this dirt floor.
He picked up the ropes of the toboggan. One step, then another, then another, he stomped through the layers of snow, pushing past jolts of pain. The steepest sections of the mountain lay ahead, and he'd have to circumvent the most hazardous crags. If he made it to the lower ridge, he’d have another three miles to the one-lane gravel road, then to Glenn Highway. Hitch a ride on an eastbound truck to Eagle River, then south. Might make it all the way to Anchorage. Alive.