That, along with the Glock and her knife, was the sum total of their gear, everything she had left. Of course, Ellie hadn’t brought a thing down the mountain other than her little Hello Kitty daypack. Except for a collapsible fishing rod, a small box of lures, and an ancient Black & Decker flashlight—working, thank God—the pack was crammed with kid stuff: a handful of toiletries, wads of clothes, a water bottle with three gulps left. A patched, grimy Gund bear that was more thread than anything else.
Okay, so maybe they weren’t completely screwed. The basic four for survival were warmth, shelter, water, and food. Well, Alex could start a fire, which she would need because all she had were the clothes on her back. She could build a debris shelter easily enough. Her filter had been in the frame pack, so that sucked, but she still had the one full bottle, and she knew where to find more water. She had the compass and the sun, and she knew roughly where they had to go, how far away they were, and that she’d have made it on her own without too much trouble.
Food was kind of a problem. There was the Glock, but aside from the spare magazine, the rest of her ammunition—an entire brick—was gone, along with the rest of her gear. Not that she knew the first thing about hunting with a pistol, or was about to waste bullets figuring it out. She might set a snare. Deadfalls were relatively easy, but using any kind of trap meant setting several and staying put, and no way was she interested in that. They could certainly fish; they were heading for the river, and the rangers were only a couple days away, max. She could make it on half a power bar a day, if she had to.
“What’s the Jell-O for?”
She glanced over at Ellie huddling against a fallen, lichen-encrusted tree trunk. The valley floor was dense with a carpet of dead leaves and a logjam of dead and blasted trees, their trunks broken into jagged, splintery toothpicks and coated with cool slicks of moss. Alex spied a few withered, knobby platters of fungus on one tree. Chicken of the woods, if she was right, which was a shame because that was an edible mushroom she actually knew, but it was way too late in the year now: too late, too cold, everything remotely edible—ferns, chokecherries, cattails, duck potatoes—either dead or too hard to get at. She might find nuts: hickory or beechnuts. Acorns were a better bet, but you had to soak them, didn’t you? For days, if she remembered right. Probably a reason the Ojibwe thought of them as famine food, something you ate as a last resort. Well, they weren’t there, yet.
“The Jell-O’s for quick energy,” she said. “You mix it with water and then drink it before it sets.”
Ellie made a face. “Yuck.”
“You won’t say that when you’re hungry.” She drew in a deep breath and let it go with a sigh. Now that the day was going, the air was very cold, but it was still edged with that strange charry stink. “You smell that? It smells like burned rubber or something.”
“No.” Ellie nibbled on her lower lip. Her iPod earbuds were draped around her neck. She looked small and miserable, and only smelled like piss and sweat now. “You know, I didn’t mean to fall.”
Which, Alex considered, was about as much apology as she was going to get out of Ellie. “No one’s blaming you,” she said, a complete lie, but no point arguing about it. “It could’ve happened to anybody.”
Ellie gave her a long look, and then seemed to consider the subject closed, because she said, “Why are they shooting at us?”
“I don’t think they were,” she said absently, thinking that maybe she ought to follow the base of the mountain, see if she could find her pack. There was no way she could follow the pack’s exact line of descent, but if she could pinpoint as closely as possible just where she’d been on the mountain, there was an outside chance she’d find it. “The first couple of shots were from a handgun and then the others were from a rifle. Anyone with a rifle probably has a scope, and if they were shooting at us, we’d have known it.”
“Then what were they shooting at?”
“Beats me.” Rifles usually meant hunters. Dogs, too. Did they use dogs for deer? She didn’t think so, but deer season hadn’t officially begun and most hunters didn’t use pistols. Now that she really thought about it, those first shots—there had been more than three, maybe as many as five—had come rapid-fire. So, probably not a hunter calmly bagging a deer, but someone freaked out enough to squeeze off a lot of rounds.
Just what we need: some crazy hunters.
Ellie was okay with that pink parka—there was no way she could be mistaken for a deer—but her sweatshirt was black. She might as well be wearing a target, like the deer in that Gary Larson cartoon.
“How come you know so much about guns?”
“My dad taught me.”
“He wanted me to be prepared, I guess.”
“Is that why he gave you that gun?”
“Mmm.” She didn’t want to get into it. She began repacking her emergency gear. “Look, I’m just going to bushwhack along the base of the mountain a little ways, see how bad it is. If the going’s not too rough, it might be worth it to see if we can find my g—” Her voice choked off.
Ellie had the black case in her hands. “Wow, this is really heavy.” Her fingers fumbled with the zipper. “Maybe there’s food—”
“No!” Alex snatched the case from the startled girl. “It’s … it’s not food.”
“Jeez, spaz much?”
“I’m …” Alex snugged the case into her fanny pack and then zipped the pack. “It’s private.”
“Whatever. I’m staying here.”
“No, you should come.”
“I don’t want to.”
“Well, I—” Something spirited out of the corner of her eye, and her head jerked right, scanning the woods. She caught the tiniest stir of leaves, nearly behind them now, and she spun around in time to catch the slink of something dark threading through underbrush—and then the stink, more feral than Mina’s fear and even wilder, hit her. An animal, but what? There were coyotes in the woods, and wolves. She just didn’t know. She worried about the odor, turning it over in her mind, trying to place it.
How am I able to do this? A person’s not like a wolf or dog, but I think I’m getting things regular people don’t smell. Ellie doesn’t smell that sweet, burnt stink—and I’ll bet she doesn’t smell this.
As if on cue, Ellie tossed a dispirited look over her shoulder, then back at Alex. “What is it?”
“Nothing.” No, she didn’t know the smell, couldn’t even find the right words. If not for the odor, she’d have believed what she’d seen was a trick of the light. “I thought I saw something, that’s all.”
“I don’t see anything.”
“It’s gone. It’s probably nothing, but I don’t know if you should stay alone.”
“I don’t care what you think.” Ellie’s face was grimy. One knee of her jeans had ripped, and the knee was scraped raw. Her pink parka had torn, the artificial fill boiling out in white gobbets. “I’m tired, I don’t like you, and I’m not going anywhere right now.”
Well, that did seem to cover it. “Fine. Just holler if you need anything.”
“I don’t need you.”
“I won’t be but fifteen minutes.”
Ellie screwed in her earbuds. “I don’t care if you never come back.”
After twenty minutes of clawing her way through briary hummocks of brush and jumbled heaps of splintery branches, she was huffing. The forest pressed in with claws and fangs, snatching at her hair, whipping her face, tugging at her ankles. She paused, arming sweat from her forehead, sorting through the problem like a geometry proof.
a) If she had a lot of time …
b) If she did not have to worry about a kid …
c) She might have a decent chance of finding her gear.
d) However, judging from the rubble she’d found so far, her pack was more than likely torn to shreds, its contents spilled over the mountain like debris from a plane crash.
e) So, hello, her pack was gone.
She retraced her steps, trying to dredge up what she remembered from the map. They could maybe squeeze out another four or five miles before dark, if they hustled. That would put them at the campground where she’d planned to stay overnight, wouldn’t it? The campground was maybe a quarter mile off the main trail and probably had a ready-made fire pit, so that was good. They might luck out and find a shelter, too.
She spied a puff of smudgy pink through the trees. Ellie had her back to Alex, and she was looking down at something. Then Alex spotted her emergency gear piled to one side. What? She’d repacked her gear; she remembered that. She’d left her pack behind because she was going to be right back, so what was Ellie—
“Hey!” She thrashed through the brush. “What are you doing?”
At the sound of Alex’s voice, Ellie jumped, threw a startled look over her shoulder, and then must’ve decided that she did not like what she saw, because she was already up, backing away, her hands up as Alex crashed out of the woods. “I was just looking!”
Alex’s eyes dropped, and then her heart fell.
The case was open.
“I wasn’t going to steal anything,” Ellie said. Her voice was a little gluey, her breath edged with a nip of cinnamon. “I was just trying to help.”
“Help?” Alex’s voice came out hoarse and ragged with rage. “You ate a whole power bar.”
“I was hungry.” Ellie tried a defiant glare, which, somehow, made her look even more pathetic. A pearl of a tear glistened on one cheek.
She wanted to strangle the kid. It wasn’t just about the power bar. “You ate a day’s worth of food—”
“It was one bar—”
“And you wanted to know what was in the case! That’s the real reason you went into my things.”
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