With Wilder satiated and Anna forgiven, the Walkers continue north.
From the day’s onset, Anna struggles.
Her legs move as if filled with fresh concrete, thick and heavy and threatening to dry to permanent stone. Stiff muscles pang with soreness in spots she never knew existed. It’s these damn snowshoes, she thinks. Stupid things. They’re like duck’s feet. Frustrated, she kicks loose snow from the webbing and watches flying clumps disappear into a nearby bank. I’d take them off if they didn’t work so well. She’s thankful for the long, flat valley they start in, rolling fields of snow spotted with pines and ice-berry bushes poking out beneath thick, white blankets. With her body grinding along level ground, the idea of going uphill concerns her. Through breaks in the trees, she can see the climbing hills looming ahead. Swollen foothills roll before them, gatekeepers to distant peaks reaching into the sky with ridgelines of dark stone. She remembers Wynn’s warning before departing camp. “We’ll be taking on elevation today, so take your time. Drink often. Keep a steady pace and remember what I said about sweating. Slow and easy today, Ms. Holt. Slow and easy.” Anna rounds a small wall of saplings to see her group even further ahead. “Slow and easy,” she grumbles to herself, “and they still pull away.”
As it was the day prior, the Walkers are happy to wait. With each rejoining, Wynn reminds Anna to take a small drink. After a moment of rest, they continue, and the pattern repeats.
Sooner than Anna would like, the valley floor surrenders to the hills. Flat land inclines. Both trail and telegraph line merge together and creep along the hillside. Where the line can leap up the hill from pole to pole, the Walkers are forced to follow winding switchbacks. The concrete within Anna’s legs changes to a molten ore from the climbing, growing heavier and hotter with each step. Rather than push herself to the brink, she stops, sips, and takes a moment to breathe. Then she slips her water skin inside her jacket and starts again. The walking is grueling, but she’s happy to feel warmth pumping through her body. The day’s sun is already diminished to a gray light pushing through a sheer of clouds, and little heat finds her. Head down, she trudges on, step after step. In her mind, she repeats Wynn’s words. See what’s gone right. See what’s gone right. The phrase becomes a mantra, words muttered with each ascent, each breath, each step. Her heart pounds like an angry fist banging against a locked door. Frozen air, already thin, grows thinner. Just when she fears she can climb no longer, there stand the Walkers awaiting her arrival. With each meeting, another proud smile from Wynn.
It’s another climb conquered.
It’s another success.
As the morning wears on, a wind takes to their backs. Occasional gusts liberate snow from surrounding trees and send swirling flakes past her cheeks and down the collar of her coat. Though the snow is frigid, Anna relishes the cold kisses. Heat radiates from her core. She undoes a button on her jacket. On a long grade, one with switchbacks that seem to stretch as far as the horizon itself, she tugs her fur cap from her head to cool herself further. Wind strokes her ears with icy fingers. She marches on, climbing still, and keeps the cap off despite the biting cold.
Slow and easy, she thinks, stepping, breathing. See the success. See what’s gone right. She pushes with her walking poles, using the strength her arms to inch up the mountainside. Better here than stuck on that train like unwanted cargo. Better here than in the brig. Better here than already dead and buried. Thighs burning, she turns and sidesteps up the hill in search of different muscles to use. Staring at her feet, she focuses on each step. Better to have any chance than none at all. An opportunity to help my kind, to slow the death of man. Nil needs communication. The line needs repair. It’s a small step, just like the ones you’re taking now. Take them as they come. See the success.
Suddenly, she’s bumping into Hemmett. Her balance falters, and she reels back, arms spinning like windmills. Hemmett grabs her by the coat and pulls her upright.
“Thanks,” she says, hearing the tiredness in her breath.
He looks at her. “You took your hat off.”
“Huh?” Anna says, huffing.
He brushes loose snow from the curls in her hair. “Your hat. You took it off.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Her breath is shallow and escapes in white clouds. “Had to,” she huffs. “Was getting hot.”
Hearing them, Wynn rounds the sled. “There you are!” he says with a chipper voice. He motions at the view behind them. “What do you think?”
Anna turns. Cold wind caresses her face. “Wow,” she says between breaths.
The hillside falls away in tumbling slopes, some steep and some calm. To her right, a shallow canyon slithers between the two foothills, split by a frozen river. Snow-covered pines stretch into the wide valley below. Her eyes wander through the forest in search of where their former campsite may have been. Further south, the mountain ranges lining the horizon seem low and dull, nothing like the jagged peaks they journey toward.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Wynn asks, hooking his thumbs onto his belt. Rogue bits of snow cling to his beard. “Did you have any idea we’d already come so far?”
Anna shakes her head. “No. I didn’t.”
Wynn gives her a wink. “All that way, one step at a time.”
“Wilder is spent from the climb,” Hemmett tells Anna, nodding toward the sled. “We’re ready for a break too. We figured we’d take an early lunch since he seems to be down for a while.”
Laying in the snow and still yoked to the sled, Wilder gives a passive, yet defiant, snort.
“Sounds good,” Anna says, noticing the tremble in her legs. She edges forward, off the slope of the trail and onto level ground. She drops her walking poles and hangs from the sled. “What are we having?”
“That depends,” says Hemmett. “How well did you score in marksmanship?”
Anna pauses at the question. “Top fifteen percent. Why?”
“Last night’s stew was the last of our meat. We need more, and we’re curious about your aim.”
“He’s curious about your aim,” says Wynn. “Based on your performance thus far, all my concerns have been put to rest.”
Anna, finally catching her breath, sees the gleam in Hemmett’s eye and the subtle smirk lurking beneath the stubble of his beard. “Alright,” she says, sliding the rifle from her shoulder. She works the action and checks the rounds inside. “Sounds fun.”
Hemmett’s smirk grows wider as he gives Wynn a look that can only mean I told you so. “That’s the spirit,” he says. “This way. I saw some thickets of ice-vine near the river ahead. It’s nasty stuff, so don’t get tangled in it, but the hares love to use it as shelter. We can hunker down on the other side and pick them off as they come. Winner gets their choice of meat. Loser has to cook. Wilder, watch the sled.”
Wilder huffs with indignation. As Anna passes the large animal collapsed in the snow, sympathy pulls her toward him. She kneels and gives his ear a rub. “How do you do it?” she asks. “How are you so strong?”
Wilder looks at her with big, brown eyes that slowly drift closed under the magic of her rubbing fingers. He rests his head and sighs with relaxation, snow puffing away from his nose.
Just a few minutes from the sled, Hemmett leads them off-trail and down a small slope. They weave through saplings struggling to stand taller than the snow, their green needles and limbs poking from the snow as if climbing from a grave. They force passage through a thicket of ice-berry bushes, leaves bright green and berries blood red, a stark contrast on the white world. As they push through, snow leaps from the bushes and onto their jackets, finding hair and cheeks and collars alike. Just opposite of the small river, Hemmett stomps out a small bunker where they can wait in the snow.
“Who takes the first shot?” Anna asks.
“Ladies first, of course,” says Hemmett. “It’s your rifle after all.”
“There’s one,” says Wynn before Anna can settle in.
“Where?” she says with a hushed voice. Her eyes scour the terrain in a futile attempt to spot white on white.
“Straight ahead,” Wynn points. He pulls his jacket tight around his waist and sits in the snow, removing his snowshoes and folding his legs. “Don’t look for the rabbit directly. You’ll rarely see it. Don’t look for anything, really. Wait and let your eyes find movement.”
Kneeling, Anna thumbs back the hammer and searches.
“These mountains are teeming with hares,” Hemmett whispers. “You wouldn’t believe how many there are. Easy pickings that makes for plenty of stew. Though, it gets a little old after awhile. Oh, that better be an easy hit,” he says as Anna aims the rifle. “I expect no less from our infantry.”
Anna slows her breathing and presses the rifle’s stock into her shoulder. She settles her eyes down iron sights, rests her finger on the trigger, and follows the hopping ball of white fur. The creature goes still, and for a moment, she loses sight of it, the world beside the frozen river nothing more than rolling banks of snow.
“Anytime now,” Hemmett goads.
A gunshot shatters the silent world. Smoke swirls in the wind, carrying a harsh smell of gun powder. Anna stands for a better look down range. “Death of man,” she says in disgust. A hundred feet away, her target is bounding through the snow, leaping toward the safety of thick ice-vine, spiraling vines of white lined with pale turquoise thorns. She thrusts the rifle toward Hemmett with a scowl.
He relishes the sight. “Death of man, but not death of rabbit.” He works the lever and ejects an empty shell into the snow. “Ms. Holt, when you said they trained you to shoot, I assumed aiming was part of this training. Was I wrong?”
Anna gives him a dubious glare.
Hemmett’s delight grows. It’s the first time she’s seen him smile ear to ear.
“This is a fine rifle,” he continues, running gloved fingers along its long, black barrel and cherry-stained wood. “Fine, indeed. These are standard issue now?”
“Hmm,” Hemmett grunts. His smile vanishes, replaced with a furrowed brow of consideration. After a moment, he shakes his head. “How the hell are we losing with equipment like this?”
The question goes unanswered as Wynn and Anna look on in silence. Hemmett kneels and undoes his black coat, letting it hang over his legs like a small tent. His hard eyes glide through the trees. A gust of wind whips by and swarms their bunker. Anna shivers as small flakes twirl around her face and stick to her cheek. In a hurry, she pulls her fur cap on.
“Cold already?” Wynn asks. “We’ve barely stopped walking.”
Anna shakes her head. “I’m only warm when I’m walking.”
“You know what you should do,” Hemmett says as he raises the rifle and settles it on his knee. “You should grow a beard.”
“Is that so, Mr. Hemmett?” Anna asks.
“Mm,” he grunts, setting the rifle to his shoulder and sliding his cowboy hat back. He closes one eye while snow flutters around the other. “I can teach you if you like. It’s no trouble.”
“If I grow a beard, it’ll be Mr. Wynn that teaches me,” she says in a matter-of-fact tone.
Pulling his eye up from the rifle’s sights, Hemmett blows raspberries. “His is the beard of a madman. It’s so overgrown he could pass for a yeti.”
“A fashionable yeti,” Anna says with a smile.
A huge grin spreads over Wynn’s face, wide and proud.
Hemmett sees the inside joke pass between them. Knowing he’s not in on it, he shakes his head and resumes his aiming.
“Don’t miss,” Anna says in the same mocking tone Hemmett used with her.
Hemmett squeezes the trigger. The sound of wind sighing through the trees is silenced by a thundering crack. High-pitched ringing fills their ears.
Anna stands and smiles. Another snowshoe hare is making frantic leaps toward a successful escape. “That was closer than the one I shot at,” she says.
Hemmett gives the rifle a questioning look. “Ms. Holt, have you dropped this weapon?”
“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Wynn says while motioning for his turn. “It’s not the rifle’s fault you’ve grown so accustomed to that cannon hanging from your hip. You’re anticipating recoil that isn’t coming.” Wynn sits up with a grunt, using the rifle for leverage. “And I’ll have you know, Mr. Hemmett, my beard is a masterful one, grown with dignity and grace. A thousand men grooming for a thousand years couldn’t match its distinction.”
Hemmett hooks a thumb at Wynn. “This is why I start each day going uphill and try to keep the coffee away from him. Otherwise it’s just piss and vinegar out of this guy.”
“Such language,” Wynn sighs as he readies another round. He tilts the rifle so the discharging shell hits Hemmett on the shoulder.
Hemmett raises his hands in exacerbation. “See?”
Despite the cold shiver shaking her body, Anna laughs.
“He’s quite the complainer, that one,” Wynn says. He lays the rifle flat over his knee. “Whining and whining. You should hear him go on about his pay. You’d think it’s indentured servitude.”
“It may as well be,” Hemmett says. “You’re lucky I don’t rob you while you sleep.”
“Rob me of what? The bulk of what we drag around belongs to you.”
Anna laughs again and wraps her arms around her chest. The wind is getting stronger, she thinks while glancing at the sky. Above, tall pines sway beneath gray clouds. The sun, so piercingly bright in yesterday’s clear sky, hangs above like a pale circle. Colder too. I hope we start walking soon. She turtles her head into her coat. Don’t think about it. Turning her eyes toward the river, she points. “There. Our side of the river. Death of man, this one’s coming right at us.”
“They’re as plentiful as they are stupid,” Hemmett says. “You better shoot fast, Mr. Wynn. He’s likely to jump right down the gun barrel otherwise.”
Wynn casually aims the rifle and fires. Blue smoke swirls from the barrel. “It’s alright, Mr. Hemmett. He was a plump one. Plenty to go around even after I’ve taken my choice. I do wish both of you better luck next time.”
“Mr. Wynn?” asks Anna with a smirk and pointing finger.
The two men look on. Just beyond their stomped-out bunker, the large rabbit is hurling itself in laborious leaps through the snow. Wynn raises the rifle and fires again. Snow puffs near the rabbit with another miss. It throws its limbs in fearful frenzy. In a flash, Hemmett pulls his revolver and cracks off three, ear-splitting shots. The rabbit cartwheels and flops into the snow, flinging splotches of red at its final landing.
Anna points a finger at Hemmett. “You’re disqualified!”
“Why?” Hemmett asks, stunned.
“You cheated. You shot out of turn, three times!”
“But I’m hungry,” Hemmett shrugs, as if suddenly exempt from the rules.
“Disqualified,” Wynn agrees.
Hemmett raises an eyebrow. “You’re disqualified too. You shot twice.”
Wynn’s face sours. “Indeed I did. I suppose Ms. Holt has the deciding shot then.” He hands her the rifle.
Still standing, Anna sees another rabbit dashing from a rock cropping toward the ice-vine. With confidence, she works the lever to ready another round, raises the rifle and fires. The large hare bounding along the frozen river spins like a top, flips, and disappears into the snow. She looks back and smiles. “I win.”
Wynn chuckles. “Good show, Ms. Holt. Well done.”
Hemmett narrows his eyes. “There was a lot more cross-breeze when I shot. The wind was gusting.”
Anna slings the rifle over her shoulder. “Oh, I’m sure it was. Maybe you should use more patience?”
“Next time we’ll use this,” Hemmett says, twirling his pistol and handing it to Anna grip first.
“Death of man,” she gasps. She rolls the heavy revolver over in her hands. “Is this dwarven?”
“Human, but it’s caliber is large to deal specifically with those stubby bastards and their armor.”
The handle, dark wood, consumes Anna’s palm, and the weight is one she’s never felt in a pistol. The steel barrel is long and large and tarnished in the tiny nooks that are hard to clean. She raises the pistol up with both hands. “You can actually shoot this thing?”
“Of course. It’s not so bad once you’re used to it. I’ll teach you.”
Already tired of the weight, Anna lowers her arms and hands the revolver back. “Where did you get it?”
Hemmett stares, his dark green eyes digger into hers. “It was a gift,” he says while dropping the gun into its holster. “From your father.” He tugs his hat down. “He gave it to me shortly before he stripped me of my career.”
A new chill passes through Anna’s body, one driven by Hemmett’s piercing eyes, eyes seeming to flourish with a previously hidden anger. She glares at his sudden change in mood. “I guess we have something in common then,” she says, doing her best to hide her discomfort.
“I guess we do,” Hemmett says, his soft tone not matching the sudden darkness in his eyes.
Sensing the surprise tension, Wynn clutches their shoulders and turns them toward the waiting rabbits. “Alright then, gunslingers. Gather up the game and let’s get to cooking. There’s still lots of ground to cover before the days is done, and I don’t want to be sitting down to eat when Wilder decides it’s time to start moving again.”
Anna is eager to do so, eager to turn away from eyes suddenly filled with judgment and disdain. She trudges through the powder, glad to be moving again, and follows small tracks to pluck her prize from the snow. Holding her lifeless rabbit by the legs, she admires its size. The torso is long and the hindquarters meaty. Her stomach grumbles with anticipation. When she turns back, Wynn and Hemmett are already making their way back. Hemmett’s dark coat flaps in the wind, and a blood-stained rabbit dangles in his hand. She glares at his turned back. ‘Right before he stripped me of my career,’ she thinks in a mocking tone. As if it’s some fault of mine. So sorry for being the wrong person’s daughter, Mr. Hemmett.
When they return to the sled, they find Wilder sleeping soundly in the snow.
“Should we do something?” asks Anna.
Wynn shakes his head. “Let him be while we eat. I’m hungry.”
Moving quietly to allow the muskox more rest, they unpack the cooking pot, pull a stretch of canvas to form a windbreak, and establish a small firepit. Anna watches the two men cook and smiles with satisfaction when Hemmett hands over her ample portion of meat. With it comes bread and thick chunks of cheese. The Walkers ravage their meals, the morning’s ascent sparking a hunger that catches all three by surprise.
“We won’t reach Nil today,” says Hemmett.
Wynn nods in agreement. “We’ll make for the junction then and camp there tonight. Our inspections will take considerable time.” He looks up at the building clouds. “I hope the sky will be kind a few hours longer. I’d rather not see our afternoon complicated with foul weather.”
“It’ll hold,” says Hemmett. “It’ll hold.”
With lunch finished, they extinguish their small fire with snow and repack the sled. For a while, the wind loses its strength. Leaping gusts dull down to faint whispers between pine needles. Cold clamps onto Anna as she huddles next to the sled. Though tired, she’s ready to be walking again.
Without warning, Wilder stirs, snorts and tosses his head. He looks up and blinks at the Walkers with dull surprise. As if realizing himself late for an appointment, he stands, gives a huff, and starts forward.
“Oh,” Wynn says, strapping on his snowshoes. “It looks like we’re off.”
* * *
With the large ascent crested, the Walkers spend their afternoon following the frozen river their lunch was harvested from. The telegraph line leads the way, dipping from pole to pole through huddled boulders and tangled trees. The trail follows the line as best it can, weaving a path of least resistance. As before, Anna finds her own pace lacking and lags behind the group, but her slower pace brings no worry. After the late morning climb, even Wilder seems happy to wait. As they move through the valley, moody clouds struggle with indecision above. Some conspire together to form a brotherhood of darkness, letting their snows fall. Others shrug off the thought of storm and instead allow shafts of light to pass through.
Far from the group and making her way, Anna suddenly finds herself adorned by a chance beam of light. Pausing to take a drink and rest her legs, the clouds overhead swirl and part, and the shielded sun is allowed a moment to shine. She stands with eyes squinting and a hand raised and watches the world transform around her. Spiraling snow catches the light and gleams like fine shavings of shimmering gold falling from the heavens. As they twirl in whimsical arms of the wind, Anna is transfixed by these tiny particles and their infinite complexity. They float into her hand like miniature butterflies, and she looks closely at the snowflakes dotting her gloves. Tiny, crystalized arms extend from frozen cores and sprout icy leaves. As her eyes move from one to the next, she sees the range of their variety, each so similar yet so infinitely distinct. “Beautiful,” she whispers. She looks up again and a wink of unfettered sunlight shines through, igniting the swirling snow with golden light.
In that serene moment, Anna is held.
The wind stills itself, and the world falls to a hush, holding its breath. Without explanation, the scene binds together in a delicate grasp of existence and eternity. Calming silence clings to every stone and crevice, to every falling flake, to every limb and branch and needle of the surrounding trees. Through the clouds, the sun spares only chance glimpses of what happens below, as if desperate to witness the beauty yet fearful its own gazing light, if present too long, would break the spell. Anna lets her lungs swell, and cold air caresses her lips as the frozen world sneaks into her blood. As if inhaling with her, a drowsy breeze whispers through the trees and tangles in her hair. Towering peaks look down in silent acceptance. Ethereal arms take her in a hidden embrace, and the delicate grasp between existence and eternity extends.
Staring at nothing and everything, she loses herself.
I’ve been so wrong, she thinks, so wrong. How did I never understand before? Death of man, help me let go of this struggle dragging down my heart. This world holds so much beauty, so much wonder and amazement and I’ve spent all my years being so far from what this world holds. What it would be to hold this beauty forever. What it could mean for the whole world to see what we have, what we are. A swelling pain comes to her heart, and she finds herself struggling to hold back tears. Looking at the clouds, seeing the vast mountain range backlit by golden light, she can’t help but wonder: How have we become so lost?
A last glimpse of sunlight catches floating bits of snow, and Anna tilts her head, opens her mouth and waits for the tiniest morsel of that beauty to land on her tongue. The sticking cold brings a taste that is timeless, one of distant mountains pure, of a world untouched and older than time. She wipes a falling tear from her cheek and realizes that without ever looking, she’s found exactly what she’s been trying to find.
“You alright?” asks a voice.
Anna startles and turns with stunned eyes. Hemmett stands a few feet away with a mild look of concern. His cowboy hat is gone, replaced by a wool cap. The change makes him look shorter, thinner. Less imposing.
“You were gone longer than normal,” he says, “and when we called, you didn’t answer. Everything okay?”
Anna’s eyes dart in frantic search. Hints of that magical moment float all around her, still fluttering with the weightless snow and whispering through the trees, but the spell has been disrupted. With her gloves, she dabs the tears in her eyes. “Fine,” she says. “I’m fine.”
Hemmett regards her for a long moment. Silence watches. He sees the look on her face and the welling tears in her eyes. His own are dark and deep and linger with hers before breaking off to observe the sunlight dancing in the clouds above. When his eyes return, the hard features of his face soften. A faint smile touches his lips. “We’ll be waiting up ahead. When you’re ready.” With that, he turns and leaves. No further questions are asked. No issue is pressed.
Anna watches him go and waits until he rounds a turn and disappears into the forest. Her eyes search the skies again, seeking that magical light, but the clouds have swarmed and swollen, and gold has become gray once more. She lets a shaky breath flow into her lungs in hopes that feeling of peace will return. What follows is similar but diminished. The moment has passed. The spell is broken.
Further down the trail, Hemmett reaches Wynn.
“Well?” Wynn asks.
“She’s fine. She’s just—well…” Hemmett chuckles.
Hemmett glances back to make sure they’re alone. “Two days and it’s already happening.”
“That being?” asks Wynn.
“The north,” he says. “She’s already falling in love with it.”