Day 39 - Preparations:
Mike showed me the path up to the top of the bluff, helping out very gingerly by and pointing to the proper foot holds in the steeper sections and making sure his help wasn‘t obvious. The bandage over my left eye had been replaced by a patch and if uncovered I could see out of it but the white was still lacerated and I would probably need the patch for another week.
When we finally made it to the top in what I expected about half the time he could have done it alone, I still felt like it was an accomplishment, and it was. It was to me a sure sign that even if in pain I would be able to walk out of here on the morrow when we started south and back towards Liberty City. I was a bit dizzy but overall very pleased. After I had assured him I would be fine Mike turned around and headed back down and I summoned the Jeep over for a close inspection and yes he was a sight for sore eyes.
“Hey Jeep, How ya been?”
“I believe I have missed your company but otherwise I have been fine Boss, and you?”
“Well thank you Jeep, and good to see you too, it appears that you’ve turned into a hero by saving my ass when you pulled me from the wreck. And do believe me when I say I appreciate it.”
“No thanks are necessary Boss. It seemed the proper thing to do at the time.”
After a close examination of the Jeep which revealed only a few surface scratches I gazed into the distance seeing the mountains rising ever higher above and the river valley spread out below. It was a fairytale sight, the way the land merged with the sky and the muted colors blended together. I could make out four tall white cloud like columns rising then blending into the towering gray clouds. That was Steam rising from thermal vents. Three were to our north and one to the east. And they just added another obstacle for anyone searching for us. The thermal signature of a fire would blend in with the natural hot spots. Riding the updrafts from the vents and turning in great lazy circles were large birds bearing about the same kind of resemblance to the devils we were used to as a hawk has to a hummingbird.
To say the land hereabouts was rugged just didn’t do it justice. Rugged wasn’t the half of it. There was much snow at the elevations above and what looked to be glacial ice meeting into the river at the northern most position I could see. There was of course much water cascading down river from the north. This far north of Liberty City it was still very early spring and the warm mid day temperature insured the spring melt was proceeding apace. The rushing water caused ripples on the wider lake like section below. Even in the absence of a wind it gave ample evidence of the river’s strength and speed.
I could make out a rapids where it narrowed back down again about a mile south of where the Jeep and I were stationed behind the rock buttress Mike had seen to getting erected. At least for now in this stage of the season rafting down stream wasn’t an option.
There was however a mostly narrow ledge paralleling the rivers course running along both shores. This was evidence of a once higher water level than today and from a geological era when the bottom of the river was equal to the ledge height. We could hike along that ledge and make good progress for a while at least. A couple of days and we would have to see what came next.
There was a herd of about 20 mountain goat like animals a few thousand feet higher up and once in a while I would see lone individuals traveling down a steep trail to the ledge by the river. I had a pair of binoculars and could study them closely. About the size of a large mountain goat; their six legged gait was an obvious improvement on the Earth design. They were covered with a mottled dull grey to black fur with patches of white that blended into the natural background. Even when moving the were not easy to pick out. Given the temperature now in the mid 20’s, and the fact that they were warm blooded, the Jeep had no trouble at all spotting them and pointing me in the right direction.
The trail the goats were using to reach the river was some 250 yards to the north of the rock berm and stacked wood shielding the signal fire. At an elevation about 50 yards up the slope from us it crossed over a slight ridge and disappearing on the other side until it neared the river again some 400 yards upstream and below us.
The weather had been improving all morning and at first in slivers, and then by patches, but now wide areas of Alchibah’s distinctive dark blue sky predominated. If one of the goats would cooperate and pass over the ridge at just the right time it would be silhouetted against the sky and I might be able to get off a shot. We could surely use the meat.
But as I said the animals natural camouflage was excellent and the rocky nature of the trail leading down towards where it passed over the ridge line combined with the distance involved made for tough conditions. The Ruger was zeroed at 250 yards but when shooting uphill I would need to aim low. I know that sounds odd to non-shooters, heck it sounds odd to shooters too, and I never believed it myself till I did the math but I wasn’t sure how low I should be aiming at this range and elevation. The Rug’s military optics would have taken all of the guesswork out of the equation but I had elected to keep things simple and hadn‘t packed them. Eventually after a four hour wait and missing two chances to shoot because of visibility problems due to a cloudy background I did get a shot off .
Aim point 2 inches low and I found out later I had just clipped the goat at its spine above the front most pair of legs. It dropped at once and tumbled out of view behind the ridge. I sent out the Jeep to see if he could bring it back and sure enough he reappeared after 15 minutes carrying the animal across one of his shoulders. I skinned and cleaned it, washing the body cavity out while still warm in fresh snow. About 45 lbs cut into chunks and wrapped back up in the pelt that would freeze over night and meat for the pot tonight.
I stayed up on top for a whole shift before Mike came up again, Janie had commed me every hour, and of course immediately after hearing the shot, checking up on my condition. I was feeling better every time we talked. The main reason for being on top of the bluff was to insure we could get a signal fire blazing in a visible location rapidly as possible should a search vehicle came into the area, unlikely, but that was all we could do for now and we had to keep trying.
When I got back from the bluff, bringing the wrapped goat meat with me, Laura and Janie had almost everything packed except for those things we would need that night. I decided to call Mike in early so that we would need to stand only a one person rotating guard that night leaving us all of us as rested as possible and ready to leave first thing in the morning.
The night went by uneventfully and near daylight R. J.P. came down from the bluff and topped up the charge in EmyCee’s batteries. It took less than an hour from the time we arose to eat, break camp, and head down stream. Seven days from liftoff from Liberty City and how many more till we would see it again?
Day 40 - Order of March:
The Jeep led out in front a hundred yards ahead carrying just a plasma rifle. I wanted to be sure he could react instantly in case of need. I was next in line with a Ruger in hand and Mikes carry on bag slung over my shoulder. My left side was still too bruised and tender to stand up to humping my pack and so Mike Reye carried that from his position as third in line. I hadn’t planned on doing much hiking when we left Liberty City to start this trip so the pack was loaded up to around 65 lbs and fortunately I included much more than just the bare essentials for a day trip.
I figured Mike might have trouble with the weight at first but given a few days I would be able to spell him, and soon, I hoped, be able to carry it full time. Mike also carried his Ruger and the pistol Andy Stewart had given him and also my plasma rifle; not because he had had any practice in it’s use but so that he could pass it on to me in a hurry if it was needed. Overall Mike was carrying almost 80 lbs, a brutal load but he had the size for it and was in much better shape than I would have guessed.
Next, and right behind Mike, came Laura, she had her carry bag and the fur wrapped bundle containing thirty pounds of the frozen goat meat. The bundle was tied up with cut strips of skin and with straps from the same material, fur side in, made a decent pack. I thought the weight too much for her but she insisted she could handle it. We would see.
I had asked Janie’s to try and keep 15 to 20 yards behind Laura but to close up and look to the rear whenever we stopped or if the pace slowed down for any reason. Janie carried along with her pack, loaded to better than 50 lbs, the other Plasma rifle. EmyCee brought up the rear 50 yards behind the main group. Emy carried, slung on her back, the container the weapons and ammunition had been stored in but now containing most of the miscellaneous camp supplies and items pulled from the Dora. To balance that not inconsiderable weight she also had a bundle of ready firewood roped together and tied on in front of her. As we stepped out I reminded everyone to stay alert and to remember the reason for a neck was to keep ones head on a swivel.
The temperature was just above freezing but rather than set out on a brisk pace figured it better to start out slowly and work up to more strenuous exercise. Another factor was that I wanted the sun to be well overhead by the time we reached the other end of the lake where the river narrowed down in a near vertical gorge as it passed beyond the area I had been able to examine closely from atop the bluff the day before.
We walked for 25 minutes then took a break for five. That was plenty enough to keep us warm and for those carrying unaccustomed weight, especially Mike, to get used to the strain. The lakes shore area though usually less than 20 feet was mostly clean bare rock though every place there was a sheltered section it became covered with potentially ankle breaking patches of loose stone and rock that we had to pick our way through with much care.
We spent just about a full two hours covering that first two miles till the lake narrowed down, but time well spent as we were getting used to the program. Alchibah was high enough in the sky that the shadows at the bottom of the river channel caused us no problem with visibility as we trekked along but the roar of the water in the boulder strewn rapids did made talking impossible.
The only things other than my rifle that I was carrying was my holstered Glock and Laura’s comp. Her comp was the only device we had with a large enough screen to let me glance at from time to time, and get a Jeep’s eye view of what lay in front of us, when the footing wasn’t difficult. It bothered me some that the Jeep in his position ahead was often out of view but nothing to do about that. At the short ranges involved at least we had no communication black outs.
All in all the morning passed rapidly and while still in the gorge, with the Jeep ahead and EmyCee posted behind, halted just after local noon for a longer break and lunch. Good thing we had brought fire wood with us because except for a couple of very small samples we hadn’t encountered enough driftwood make a difference, much less a fire.
I pulled the collapsible rod out of my pack after Mike had set it down and as quickly as the others had a fire going pulled in two smallish variants of the familiar trout. Not a big meal but quick when roasted and we would save the goat meat we were hauling with us for later. Scarcely forty minutes and we were on our way again.
It was early afternoon, but shadows were already beginning to form in the deep cut we were waking through, but in little more than a mile the steep rock walls hemming us in began to spread and crumble into a more gradual slope. And after another mile it was like coming out of a tunnel as the river cascaded downwards towards a vast open tundra marked here and there by rocky outcroppings fronted with glacial moraines and dotted by the infrequent clump of pole-pines. We had lost several thousand feet of elevation and most of the winters snow had melted off with only an infrequent patch or drift were still evident. Almost 9 hours of marching that first day, and perhaps15 miles covered, but a very adequate beginning, and with well known, safe, terrain behind us and knowing nothing of dangers ahead, a very suitable spot to stop for the night.
That first day’s travel set the pattern for many of those to follow. And in order to keep from repeating myself I’ll layout a typical days travel during our first month in reverse order of stop to start. After reaching the days stopping point I would walk an arc in front of where we would camp, covering all the ground to a distance of about 200 yards till I was certain I had found the best spot for the Jeep to occupy while acting as the nights forward lookout. While I was doing that Janie and Laura pitched the tent and did whatever else was necessary to set up. The Jeep’s guard spot being determined both he and I returned to camp and EmyCee would come forward so the Jeep could top off her charge.
Taking as much of this time as he needed Mike collected fire wood, cutting enough to keep a small fire burning all night long. He tried to collect more than enough so we would have some to take with us when we left in the morning but in areas like where we were stopped right now with wood scatted or scarce or if the weather was bad, he just make sure the fire would last the night. Next dinner and after eating with still an hour of daylight remaining, we were having a bit more than 13 hrs of daylight right now, I would get some sleep.
Either Laura and Janie, or once in a while Mike and Janie, would handle the first watch which lasted till midnight. I took over at that time and often caught another hour of sleep in the morning while breakfast was made and the others packed for the day ahead.
Privacy; we had little to none, and that took some getting used to. We copped in part by ignoring what we weren’t meant to see.
Laura and Mike got along well with each other and seemed rather to enjoy than to just tolerate the forced intimacy of our small group. Neither Janie nor I actively encouraged their growing friendship but we didn’t actively discourage it either. The one time I brought up the subject Janie said, “Their both good people Bart, however things turn out between them, it’ll be human natures decision, and nothing you or I do or think will matter in the end.”
Most days we hiked for eight to ten hours with a short stop for lunch, very rarely more than that. We never walked as fast as conditions might have allowed due to the need for constant security. The extra light at the end of the day was absolutely necessary for getting a safe camp ready well before dark. If we came upon an ideal location earlier, one that would permit us to get by with only one guard, we would stop much earlier, sometimes just after noon with as few as six hours in. We seldom moved as rapidly as we could have, caution being the key, so a good day’s travel was a little over fifteen miles and twelve or thirteen much closer to average but the steady progress was it‘s own reward. As we toughened up we would walk an hour or more between rest stops.
I kept hold of Laura’s comp while on the march or standing guard and kept the log files current. I had gotten so used to that every day it was second nature. We all did quite a bit of dictation into the device that the AI program would organize. I made copious notes concerning the terrain and geological strata and took many visuals as examples but found more than enough time for my personal log.
By the end of the first week I was carrying my pack full time with no troubles and almost no soreness and Mike had his own pack back. We found it washed up on a bank two days farther down stream. We never did find Laura‘s or anything else from the wreck. After that first week we stopped scanning the skies for signs of rescue.