My rear was thumping as hard as Thor’s head was probably doing. To say I wasn’t sitting easy in the saddle was an understatement. That and the fact that I was anxious about the horses being on an icy trail is what had me moving so slow that I noticed Thor sliding sideways in his saddle and caught him before he actually went off.
“I’m ‘kay … just … Hon, how much further is home?”
The fact that Thor would actually ask that had me searching his face in the gloaming that had fallen in the late afternoon. What I saw didn’t make me happy.
“How cold are you?”
That told me all I needed to know. I had to get Thor out of the cold and get a fire started. He was suffering from hypothermia. His body, not experiencing this kind of weather in many years, simply wasn’t acclimated enough to adjust the way mine had already started doing, though I knew I needed to get out of the weather soon as well. The problem was the path we were on didn’t have much shelter on it. I was considering whether to try and get one going under the trees but that would have left the horses to suffer. Then I saw a landmark and realized that this was the path that I was going to take Thor on to check out the strange mark on Uncle Bentley’s map.
I prayed. I don’t know exactly what I was praying for but whatever it was I was praying hard for it. At the exact point pinpointed on the map I stopped and looked around but didn’t see anything. Thor leaned over so heavy that I wasn’t expecting it and only the two horses kept him from landing on his head. I got him down to the ground and helped him over to a rocky outcrop hidden in some trees. I realized this was as good as it was going to get and tied the horses off and looked around for something to build a shelter with.
There were what I thought were some downed small trees and I decided to use them as braces. They didn’t want to give so I kicked them and they loosened a bit but not enough to drag them. Then I realized there was a large hollow spot beneath them. Even better, if I could just move some of the bigger stones around the opening I could even walk the horses underneath, it was that tall.
It took me fifteen minutes but I finally managed to pry the rocks out of the way. I went back for Thor only to find he’d been crawling in my direction before getting sick. “Thor?” I asked scared at how little he was moving.
“Tol … told you … I … I … I didn’t l-l-l-like l-l-little boats.”
“Lord, you’re frozen through. So am I for that matter. Duck your head.” I got him in and back into a surprisingly large space. So large in fact I couldn’t see the back end because it was so black. The horses were reluctant until they sensed the warmth that could be had out of the wind but it took the apples in my pocket to completely convince them.
Searching in my pack another prayer was answered when all of my gear turned out to be dry. I was beginning to understand that God made a habit of answering prayers that were honestly prayed, even the ones you don’t realize you are praying. I wound up my flashlight and looked around. I still couldn’t see to the back of what I realized was a cave but I did notice a fire ring and nearly a half cord of cut wood ready to be used. Putting two and two together I realized this had to be the location where Uncle Bentley had found the old treasure and that he must have used it frequently enough as a stopover during his tramps in the mountain that he kept wood stocked in it.
I was beginning to shake now that my core temp was starting to warm up again since we were out of the wind and ice. I was glad I had my flint and steel because I probably wouldn’t have been able to strike a match I was shaking so hard. While the fire ate up the tender and got into the bigger pieces of wood I started stripping Thor.
“You’re gonna kill me,” he mumbled.
No I wasn’t but there was still a draft that made undressing more than uncomfortable. I unsaddled the horses much to their pleasure and took their saddle blankets and made a door across the cave opening. The cave smelled a little like horse sweat but, in a moment of mirth, I thought if I could live after smelling Evans’ feet for weeks I could handle sweaty horse. Sweaty horse smell led me to think of wet dog smell and I had to put our pup from my mind and pray that she had the sense to burrow into the hay and that the cats would share her nest for warmth. The animals at the farm would have to be taken care of by God because I had my own immediate problems to deal with. Both Thor and the horses had to be dried off and fed.
Finally the cave started to warm and though it was still too cool for real comfort – like someone had set the air conditioning way too low – at least the worst of the cold was gone. I was finally able to dry the horses and strip Thor. I hung his wet clothes near the fire using a couple of limbs I pulled close. His rain pants weren’t bad so I helped him to slip those back on to keep up from being completely Adam and Eve. I wrapped a space blanket around him and then started shimmying out of my own wet togs.
I looked up after I had finished hanging my own clothes to find Thor staring intently. “Thor?”
“Uh uh, you …”
“I said come here.” The angry command in his voice caught me off guard and I obeyed automatically before I even thought about it. I did however react when he tried to rudely yank my rain pants down on one side.
I yelped, “You want that other lump now or later?!”
“Hold still,” he ground out.
When I figured out what he was doing I said, “I’m fine, it’s just a bruise.”
He replied with a cuss word that had me giving him the same look Mom would give Dad on occasion. “There’s absolutely no need for that. I told you I’m fine.”
“That is not ‘just a bruise’. It’s as big as my hand and …”
I sighed and bent down, albeit painfully, and kissed him trying to distract him though I admit it felt wonderful to have him be so concerned for me when he himself was far worse off. “One of the times I fell my tush connected with a good sized rock. I’ll be sore but nothing’s broken. I’ve got plenty of padding back there.”
He swallowed. “Don’t … don’t try and distract me with your padding. Are you sure there’s no broken skin or anything? And how can you even tell, that’s one of the darkest bruises I’ve ever seen on you.”
“No broken skin. No broken bones. You on the other hand need those cuts looked at, though thank the good Lord above that bump on your head is going down. It is still nasty looking but at least it isn’t spreading.”
He reached up and gingerly felt the knot on his forehead. “I’m not dizzy anymore, or sick to my stomach. I don’t think I’m concussed at all; this is just a hematoma. It looks nasty but that’s about it and only hurts if I press on it.”
I jerked his hand away, “Then for Heaven’s sake don’t press on it. Let me see your nose and lip. Any cracked teeth?”
He sighed, “The nose and lip … I … I hit myself with the oar.”
“You …” I stopped and kept a serious face. Part of me wanted to laugh but another part of me … the part that had done it to myself before … kept me too sympathetic to crack a smile. “Whatever, it has to smart. I’m going to make some warm salt water and I want you to rinse your mouth out with it and then I’ve got a little tube of cold sore medicine that will at least take the sting out of the outside part and protect it from infection. Bridge of your nose looks bruised.”
“Good thing I don’t wear glasses then or I’d be worse off.” He was a good sport for all he was embarrassed. “When it warms up you are going to teach me to kayak.”
I smiled and told him, “Sounds like fun. There are places on the river further downstream from where we got out that can be canoed too. That’s more relaxing and you can take more gear.”
At my sudden quiet he asked, “What?”
“I just …” I shook myself. “Memories. Someone always had to stay home and mind the farm and Mom didn’t care for the river except if we were fishing. Canoeing and kayaking just weren’t here thing so it was always just Dad and I or the Crew or a piece of it if we were just goofing around as friends. We didn’t keep a lot of animals so I never really thought of it.”
“Thought of what?”
“The farm. I love the place but I just realized how … how stuck … I’m going to be. Animals have to be cared for every day, especially if we get a milk cow. You have to keep them safe from predators who will know if you aren’t around. The garden is going to be so important from here on out because if something doesn’t make there is no going to the store to make up the difference in our supplies. I just … Every time I think I’ve got just a bit of my old normalcy back I realize it is only further away. The old times and old ways are never coming back are they?”
Thor was kind but blunt, “Not for several years at a minimum. Now scoot over here and help warm me up.”
I gave a watery chuckle and said, “You stay ‘warm’ all the time.”
“And whose fault is that Hon?”
We both chuckled but fatigue was finally pulling at us both hard as the adrenaline rush drained away leaving us feeling a bit hollow. Slowly I felt him putting more and more weight on my back and I realized he was falling asleep so I gently laid us both over and when I heard his first snore I untangled myself and got up.
Hypothermia will sap all of your strength and I was impressed that Thor had lasted as long as he had … not surprised since he’d proven himself so many times before, but definitely impressed. I felt my t-shirt and it was already dry but my flannel was still damp so I left it to continue toasting. I dragged on my dry shirt and put on my gloves before sticking my hand outside and breaking off some of the icicles that were already forming. As ice storms went it didn’t look like it was going to be too bad but it was going to be dark within an hour or so and I wanted some more grass collected and water boiled so that I wouldn’t have to go out in the dark looking for it.
I left the bulk of the icicles piled immediately outside the mouth of the cave but brought the grass and two big icicles in, broke the ice into small chunks. I put the chunks into the pots from our mess kits to melt and then boil. I’d use one pot of water for rehydrating a dry soup mix I’d packed and the other for some warm Russian tea with the blend I used being more Russian than tea. I knew that Thor would want coffee but hypothermia and caffeine is a bad mix that can lead to a racing heart and worse. I’d save his coffee for in the morning on the off chance we were able to head home early in the day.
The smell of the soup eventually woke Thor back up. “Hey!” he said sleepily.
“Hey yourself Big Boy,” I smiled back at him. “Ready for something warm to fill the hollow spaces with?”
Was he ever and as I suspected he wasn’t too keen on the idea of not having his coffee but he only grumbled a little and not at me. After we ate I checked and our clothes were dry. I threw him his but he didn’t put them on. “What are you doing?!”
“Acclima …!!” I parked my hands on my hips and started tapping my foot. “Put some clothes on! If you want to acclimatize yourself then do it when I’m not worried about you catching your death of pneumonia. There’s no telling if you got any of that river water in your lungs and …”
“You could always join me … keep me warm.”
I looked and through the dancing light of the fire, sure enough he had that twinkle in his eyes. Well I wasn’t one to enjoy wishfully thinking about missed opportunities, not to mention I was in need of a little comforting myself. The only thing I said was, “Careful of the bruise, it smarts.”
I woke up to the feel of a horse nosing my hair. Thor groaned and asked where I was going and I told him it was either get up and put some more grass out for the horses or risk their displeasure. We both got up despite it was close enough to our regular bed time that it seemed kind of silly. Thor took care of the call of nature and I fed the horses and then following his example. I came back into the cave to find Thor getting dressed.
“Enough acclimatizing?” I asked with a giggle.
He chuckled back. “That’ll hold me for a while.” As he buttoned his flannel he asked, “How far back does this go?”
“I don’t know, I’ve had other things on my mind,” I answered. To be honest I still did. Thor was still under par though he’d been trying to show me otherwise. I wasn’t one hundred percent myself. I wasn’t real enthusiastic about the idea of spelunking but I grabbed our ropes and my light that clipped to the brim of my baseball cap.
“And where do you think you’re going?” Thor asked.
“The space back there disappears into blackness where the ceiling drops. You’ve already cracked your head once, I figure it is my turn next. If I can’t get through back there you sure won’t be able to. It’ll just save us some time if I go first.”
“I hate it when you make sense,” he mouthed real sassy.
I grinned like I’d got one over on him but we were both just playing to kill time. I tied one end of the rope onto my waist and he tied off the other end onto his waist. The ceiling dropped down a couple of feet and was jagged so I was bent over and keeping an eye so that my head didn’t bang anything. Unfortunately I should have also been watching my feet better. Suddenly my right foot came down expecting to meet solid ground and instead found air. The floor had fallen away but lucky for me when I fell it was only about two feet and not down some shaft.
“Oooooooo a ooooowwwwwww!”
“I’m … oh Lord … I’m fine Thor. I just … ah geez … landed on my already bruised sitter.”
“Ro – chelle,” he ground out. “If you don’t …”
“I told you, I’m okay. The ceiling doesn’t just drop, the floor did too all of a sudden. Just a big step down but I missed it trying not to hit my head on anything. You should be … able … holy cow!”
A snarled, “You realize I’m having a heart attack here woman …right?!”
“This is too hard to explain. Tie the line off on something and then follow it back. I’m in a small alcove or room. I mean seriously … someone turned this into a room.”
It was less than two minutes before Thor joined me. We were able to stand up in the room but he only had a couple of inches to spare. He couldn’t have even stood on tiptoe without bashing his head. Because of this, and the fact of what we were seeing was so strange, we moved slowly around the room.
With only the light that came from my brim light and his wind up lantern we saw a metal frame sat in the corner on which was suspended a hammock. A strip of wooden pegs had been hung along one side of the room and there were two shaker style chairs hanging on them as well as a small, folding table. An old pot belly stove sat in another corner but the stove piping wasn’t hooked up, it lay in a pile beside it. On another wall there was another set of pegs and from them hung some snow shoes, a fishing pole, and a couple of kerosene lanterns. The strangest thing however was a bunch of metal coffee cans that were piled deep and high against the last wall.
“Those aren’t coffee cans Hon,” Thor told me when I asked the obvious question.
“They sure look like it; old metal coffee cans before they went to the all plastic ones when they mandated only the plastic ones were still allowed when I was little. Dad has a bunch out in the barn that he would throw nails and screws into.”
Thor picked one up and shook it. Sure didn’t sound like it had coffee in it. Instead of the shooshing noise ground coffee made it rattled a little like small marbles.
“Look around for a can opener.” We couldn’t find one so Thor used his multi-tool. Looking inside Thor said, “That old man.”
“Who? Uncle Bentley?”
He handed me the can and while I looked inside it Thor said, “Hon, it looks like he was fixing himself up a retreat or hideout. I don’t think he was finished with it though. Or … possibly he was in the process of dismantling it.”
“Why do you …? Oh.” Thor was looking at spots on the floor that looked like they’d held more of the cans at one point and another place that something else with four legs had once sat. Looking more closely I realized there was other evidence of more having been in the room at one time.
About that moment there was a loud cough from back near the fire. “Rocky girl? That you?”
Thor and I scrambled back the way we had come and my jaw dropped. It was Mr. Dink all right but there was a woman with him.
“Mind if we share your fire? It’s more than a bit cold out tonight.”
I said “of course” while Thor got some more wood to put on the fire. I got another few mugs of tea warmed up and Mr. Dink pulled two speckleware mugs out of his pack.
“This here’s Louise. She don’t talk much but she’s a good cook.”
I looked over just in time to see the older woman blush in pleasure before ducking her head.
“Our base camp got burned over by the fire and I was heading to the farm when I spied the door there,” he said nodding his head towards the horse blankets. “Stuck my head in and then heard your voices. This one of the Griffey boy’s play houses?”
I looked at Thor who in turn asked, “He had more than one?”
“Oh yeah. He claimed territory all over these mountains like he owned ‘em or sumpin’. He tried to take all the choice spots until some of us started gettin’ fed up and dismantling ‘em as fast as he could put ‘em together. He finally got it through his head and kept ‘em down to a reasonable number and didn’t fuss too much when one of us had to use ‘em in an emergency so long as we cleaned up before we left.”
I asked, “By ‘us’ you mean the other men of the mountain?”
“Yeah … and the tramps and such that would go off and try and become one of us. Some would stay, some would die, most went on someplace else or back where they come from. The life ain’t for everyone. Louise here…” He stopped when she shook her head. “Aw, ain’t nothin’ ter be ashamed of. Weren’t yer fault. Times is hard and who woulda wanted to be stuck in an old folks home anyway? Just so yer kids could say they did all they could fur ya?” He turned back to us. “Better to live and die free than to be forced into one o’ them places you just wait around to die. Buck and yer ma understood that. They never made the old ladies go even when everyone else told ‘em it would have been easier on them if they had.”
I shook my head. “No. Dad would never have let the Grandmothers go to a nursing home unless they had wanted it themselves. That would have killed them faster than old age did.”
Mr. Dink looked at Miz Louise and said, “See. Told ya she had sense. If sumpin’ ever happens to me you come to Rocky … and the big ‘un is named Thor. They’ll take care of ye.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said. After a quick glance at Thor I said, “Ya’ll are welcome to the cabin if you’d like.”
I expected a fuss but Mr. Dink surprised me. “Well that’s right neighborly but we’re heading for the old stone house what sits off the river. You know the one?” At my nod he said, “Louise is used ter things being a might … er … cleaner than an old bachelor like me let ‘em go to. Know the fireplace is sound as I’ve used it a time or two this past year. Fix the rotten places on the door and put new glass in the winders and it’ll be a right nice and tight little place. Not too far from the river that we cain’t have a fresh fish for our dinner when we aim to and that little spring that’s close by will do for drinking water.”
That was so out of character from the man I had known my whole life that my thoughts must have shown on my face. “Louise here … she’s a good ol’ girl but she cain’t survive in this forest on her own all the time. She don’t fuss when I feel the urge to go tramping but with her around I don’t feel the old urge so much. Settling down into one or two spots seems like it might be just fine.” He laughed as my mouth only fell open more. “Reckon Thor here told yer what I said.” I swung around to look at Thor who gave me blank face and I remembered he’d put me off so many times I’d actually forgotten to ask what Mr. Dink had said last time he’d been at the farm. “I dreamed my old life was going to end. Took it to mean my life was going to end period since I couldn’t imagine any other kind o’ life. But God has sumpin’ different in mind. He sent Louise ter me.”
A whispered “Or you to me” was the first words I’d heard from the lady.
“Yup, or that. Either way, looks like He thinks it’s time fur me ter try something new. He shore do know how to keep life interesting, I tell you that. Who woulda thunk at my age I’d find me a Cindyrelly.”
Miz Louise ducked her head again but I saw she was also smiling. I was trying to put my teeth back in my mouth when Thor asked Mr. Dink if he would mind taking a look at what we found and see what he thought of it.
When they came back up Mr. Dink said, “See Louise, God does provide.”
The four of us finally settled down and slept deeply. It was late and the day had truly taken its toll. Tomorrow was another day and I tried to remain as sure as Mr. Dink did about God’s provision. There just always seemed to be a problem of some type to face and the coming days of winter I knew would be no exception.