It was a waterfall. Fraser was not at all surprised by this. He was, however, mildly surprised by the fact that they did not fall down the waterfall. After the luck he had lately, that would have seemed like the logical thing to happen next.
But Ray actually steered the raft to the side of the river so they could get off it and find a way down that didn’t involve free fall and the possibility of watery demise. Fraser still felt a little stiff and his vision was still a little blurry, so he contemplated stealing the raft and taking the quick way down anyway. He was ready to admit, though, that that idea might have been planted by the pounding in his head and the unwillingness to walk. Or by the concussion. Concussions always gave him ideas that seemed very good at the time but really, really weren’t.
Either way, Ray prevented any voluntary or involuntary waterfall jumping by dragging Fraser off the makeshift raft and the raft ended up going down the waterfall all by itself. Like this, they could keep using it if it survived the fall, Ray argued. Fraser thought that carrying it down the steep and narrow path they found would have been safer for the raft but Ray insisted that it was too heavy, and if they took it apart and carried it down in pieces to rebuilt on the ground it would still be too heavy and impractical on that death trap of a path, because Hey, who do you think is going to carry all that? You, Mister Hey-Could-You-Please-Eat-More-Your-Bony-Shoulders-Digging-Into-My-Guts? I think not!
Fraser argued that even Ray on his own should need no more than ten trips up and down the wall of stone to get everything down without breaking anything and Ray send the raft on its way without further comment. He also didn’t make any comment at all while they climbed down the rocks, and although he did save Fraser from falling to his death once, he did so with a general air of irritation.
They made it down in one piece in the end (or in two pieces, rather: One Ray-piece and one Fraser-piece) and naturally, the raft did not. It hit a rock and fell apart and they did not have enough material to build a new one. Fraser looked at the pieces and tried to think of anything to say. Some comment should be made on the passing of this useful companion of such a short time. In the end, he came up with “Darn.”
Ray, usually so much more skilled in the fine art of cursing, just sighed and shrugged and started walking. He stayed next to the river, which Fraser, following after him, thought was sensible. But there were many rocks there, small ones and big ones and Fraser kept stumbling over them and nearly falling. Eventually, Ray came back to him and started to support his weight with an arm around Fraser’s waist, which Fraser thought was very nice of him.
Every now and again, Diefenbaker would be seen between the trees. He was still carrying the first aid kit Ray had dumped on him and was obviously miffed about that, since he didn’t seem to want their company at the moment. He just sometimes needed to make sure they weren’t dead when they didn’t follow as quickly as he thought they should, or – Heaven forbid! – taking a break without him.
Ray was also still carrying their bags, but now he was only half-carrying Fraser, which Fraser thought must have been a great improvement to Ray’s situation. There was really no reason for his friend to be in such bad spirits. After all, no one was trying to kill them, Fraser could see and walk and everything was going great. Except for the raft, but that was really Ray’s own fault for not listening to him.
They’d been walking for a while in grumpy silence when Fraser tried to be helpful by pointing out that they were going in the wrong direction.
“Ray, Ray,” he said. “You’re going in the wrong direction.”
Ray stopped dead in his tracks, but he didn’t look at Fraser, nor at the right direction. He just closed his eyes and moved his lips like he was counting. “What,” he asked after reaching ten, “is the right direction in your opinion? How many directions are there? There’s forward and there is backward. Going backward would be stupid so I’m going forward, but if you feel there is anything wrong with that reasoning, feel free to turn around.”
“Now, Ray. There is no reason to be so touchy.” Fraser resisted the urge to pout, then he gave up on resisting and pouted. “I was merely trying to help.”
“Well, you’re not.”
“And you’re wrong,” Fraser added.
“No, I’m not. You aren’t helping.”
“You are wrong about the direction, Ray.”
Ray sighed. He let go of Fraser’s waist and started walking back towards the waterfall without saying another word. Fraser held him back before he could take three steps.
“What?” Ray snapped. “You expect me to fly?”
“Left and right, Ray. You’re only thinking in terms of forward and backward. There is also left and right.”
“Oh, you mean swim in the river? Or climb that slope to run aimlessly though the woods?”
“Exactly, Ray.” Fraser beamed, because Ray was finally getting it.
“Okay, wait here while I get my swimming trunks.”
“You’re too fixed on the river, Ray. Our destination – the next outpost of civilisation, that is - is that way.” Fraser pointed into the woods, where somewhere behind slope and many, many trees was the next outpost of civilisation.
Ray looked at him. “We’re not leaving the river, Fraser.”
“We need to leave the river. Our destination is that way.”
“If we still had the raft, we wouldn’t be leaving the river either.”
“If we still had the raft, we wouldn’t be walking. Now we are waking and the straight line to our destination is that way.” Fraser pointed again, sure that his friend would understand now.
“Right that way? As in, if I climb up this slope I will see it, that way?”
“Well, of course not, Ray. We would still have to walk through the wilderness for a while, but I am certain the way along the river is much longer.”
“Oh, really? And which of us do you think is going to die of dehydration first while we walk through the wilderness? I don’t know if you noticed, but walking in a straight line without a compass is not exactly our strong suit.”
Ray was sounding really irritated. “In my defence, Ray, I was blind. I can see now. Everything will be all right.”
“Yeah, right. Because all you need to survive in the middle of nowhere is a seeing Mountie.” Ray threw up his hands in frustration and took hold of Fraser’s arm to drag him over to some larger rocks near the water.
“This is the wrong way, Ray.”
“Yeah, we covered that. You sit here.” Ray made Fraser sit down. Fraser thought it was a little patronizing but now he was sitting he didn’t feel like getting up again. He even took the water bottle that Ray pushed into his hands and drank eagerly.
“Huh, that’s good,” he realised with some surprise.
“Yeah, it is, isn’t it? Why don’t we just wait here until Dief finds us and then we wait here until morning?”
Fraser looked up to the sky. “But Ray, it’s not even dark yet. We shouldn’t rest yet.”
“Yes, we should. Because you keep falling over your own feet and don’t even realise how thirsty you are and now you will either shut up and rest or I will drown you in this river. Did I make myself clear?”
Ray: contrary as always. First he told Fraser to shut up, then he asked him a question. Fraser decided to risk it and confirmed that yes, Ray had indeed made himself perfectly clear. Except on that not speaking thing. But Fraser didn’t say that.
Ray didn’t drown him in the river, so he’d probably got it right.
When Fraser woke up early the following morning, he didn’t even remember falling asleep. He didn’t remember nightfall either, so he must have slept for a long time.
His pillow moved. He sat up to inspect that mystery and recognized his pillow as Dief, who looked at him accusingly and then ran off. Fraser rolled his eyes and moved his head left and right until his neck popped. As a pillow, the wolf wasn’t all that comfortable.
At least he was warm. Fraser’s neck was pretty much the only part of him that wasn’t cold. His legs were ice-cold, even. His upper body was only moderately cold, probably thanks to the extra jacket draped over him. Fraser looked at it for a moment, contemplating its origin.
Ray sat huddled in his sweater on a nearby rock, staring sullenly out at the river. Although he must have noticed Fraser’s waking, he didn’t acknowledge him until Fraser handed him back his jacket.
“Yeah, I failed to start a fire again,” he grumbled, defiant even before Fraser had a chance to say something. “So what, you gonna give me another lecture how it’s done? Or tell me that it would have been less lousy cold if we’d wandered away from the river?”
“Why would I say that?” Fraser frowned. “It would be singularly stupid to move away from the water in this situation.”
Ray narrowed his eyes at him, looking suspicious. “You feeling better today?”
“Why, yes, Ray. Thank you for asking.” Fraser did feel better. His head still hurt and he was still feeling a little wobbly when he stood up and stretched his cold and stiff limps, but his mind was a lot clearer than the day before and the pain not nearly as bad.
His stomach growled. Not surprising at this point, and actually a good sign because it showed his body was ready to deal with things like food again. Unfortunately, they didn’t have food, which was a bad thing. They weren’t, however, more than a day’s walk away from rescue, and the hunger shouldn’t become too much of a problem before then. Not a lethal kind of problem, in any case.
Some food would probably help with the headache, though.
Ray looked at him silently and handed him his water bottle. Fraser drank eagerly and handed it back before Ray climbed down the rocks to the river to refill all the bottles they had.
Meanwhile, Fraser rolled up the blanket he had been sleeping on. He didn’t remember lying on it, either, but it had provided at least some protection from the cold, if little comfort. When he picked up the heavy bag with the words “Survival kit” printed on it, Ray look it from him with a glare. “You’re not carrying that,” he said in a voice that allowed no argument. “You concentrate on walking straight.”
“I don’t think walking straight is going to be much of a problem, Ray.”
“Yeah? Well, wait a few hours and say that again. I am not going to pull you out of that river, Benny.”
“Well, Ray, I don’t think that will be necessary. I can swim.”
“Great. Swimming is easier without luggage.” Ray hefted the bags over his shoulder. All but the smallest one. “Dief!” he called into the trees. “Get back here, or I swear there will be no food for you ever again. In fact, we will eat you! We’ll roast you over the fire Fraser will start for us and you will be the best thing we’ve ever had!”
“He can’t hear you, Ray,” Fraser kindly reminded his friend. “And if he could, I doubt your words would offer motivation for him to come back.”
“If he can’t hear me, what are you complaining about? Seriously, how do you ever get anything done with that wolf? We’ll be standing here all day if we wait for him.”
“Then we won’t.” When Fraser picked up the small first aid kit that Dief was supposed to carry, Ray didn’t protest. Apparently he trusted the Mountie to handle that much weight. “Let’s go. He’ll find us.”
Dief did find them within the next ten minutes. Fraser saw him show up at the top of the slope to their right, several dozen metres ahead of them. Just stopped long enough to make sure they still existed. The moment he spotted the bad Fraser was carrying, he turned around and ran off again, like the lazy traitor that he was.
The rocky ground made walking an uneven and sometimes difficult matter, but it didn’t justify the slow pace Ray was setting. He was walking ahead of Fraser with all the bags, stumbling quite often because he didn’t lift his feet high enough. Fraser told him to lift his feet off the ground as he walked, and to walk faster; there was no reason to take it slow for Fraser’s sake. He was doing quite alright, and he didn’t stumble nearly as often as Ray did, now. Because he was lifting his feet off the ground.
Even though someone once told him he’d get killed if he didn’t keep his feet on the ground all the time. Clearly, that wasn’t the way to survival here.
Once again, Fraser was being helpful, and once again, Ray did not appreciate his helpfulness. He also did not listen but continued as before. Impatient and a little irritated, Fraser stuck close to his back, waiting for a chance to get past his friend so he could show him that picking up some speed was absolutely no problem.
“You know, looking back I am sure we could have saved the raft,” he mused out loud after a while, to break the silence but also to say, ‘Hey Ray, I am right behind you and if you do not want me to step onto your feet you should walk faster’ in not so many words. “I really wasn’t thinking clearly yesterday. Since most of the logs remained unbroken, we could have collected flexible twigs and used them to bind them together where we were lacking rope.”
“Okay then,” Ray replied. “Let’s go back and make rope from twigs. Why didn’t I think of that? You’d think I was the one with the concussion.” But he made no move to go back. He just kept going forward at the same infuriatingly slow pace as before.
“Now, at this point that would be silly, Ray. I have considered building a new raft using this technique.”
Ray stumbled once again and fell. His rather loud curses covered Fraser’s explanation on why he had decided against building a new raft, but he probably wasn’t listening anyway. Fraser used the chance and slipped past him before he could get back to his feet. “Perhaps you should let me carry those bags, Ray,” Fraser offered kindly.
“Go to hell,” Ray suggested. “Oh, wait. That’s where we are. Never mind, move on, then.”
“You are grossly blowing our situation out of proportion, Ray,” Fraser gently reprimanded his friend. Ray didn’t reply, either because he didn’t want to admit Fraser was right or because he was annoyed that Fraser had been right about being able to keep up a faster speed. In fact, now he could walk at his own pace he felt lighter and more energetic despite the lingering headache that Ray didn’t need to know about. Just to prove a point, and perhaps a little out of spite, Fraser jogged over the next few rocks, jumping from one to the other. When he turned around, Ray was quite a bit behind him, glaring at his display of health.
All that optimistic elations he had felt after crushing the criminal under a pile of rocks had apparently gone down the waterfall with the raft.
After his first sprint of childish defiance, Fraser settled into a more reasonable pace. It was still a lot faster than what Ray had thought appropriate. Ray seemed to resent that, because he kept a constant distance of five or six metres between them and didn’t seem interested in conversation. In fact, the sun was indicating noon by the time he next spoke. “How about we take a little rest over there at the tree?” he suggested. “Maybe we can trick Diefenbaker into joining us for it, and then you can slap the bag on him.”
Fraser looked down onto the kit he was still carrying. It didn’t bother him much, but Dief was being very selfish and childish right now and would do well to do his part to help.
It occurred to Fraser that his own part in helping their progress was pretty much walking by himself. Well, he had offered to carry some of the bags. And he was walking as fast as he could and thought reasonable in the long run, despite the occasional bout of dizziness, so that this ordeal wouldn’t take longer than it absolutely had to.
The tree Ray had been talking about was a big one, half-hanging over the river with its roots climbing down the rocks. Fraser had been eyeing it for a while for a different reason, but it was as good a place for a rest as any. And even if tricking Dief was the excuse for it, he was actually quite glad to be sitting down.
Ray threw down all the bags, sank to one root-covered rock and finished what was left of his water. Fraser did the same. He had forgotten to drink as much as he should for the past few hours. A potentially dangerous mistake, even though he had water and Ray was looking out for him. Maybe he wasn’t as well as he thought he was.
There still was no food for them, or course. If they had been settling for a more permanent arrangement, Fraser would have fished, or laid out traps in the wood, but as it was, they didn’t have the time for that kind of thing. Ironically, the fact that they were aiming for a safe place with food was what kept them from getting any food in the meantime.
It would do. He could deal with one day of hunger, and so could Ray, as long as they had water.
It was therefore important to stay close to the river. None the less, Fraser had decided a while ago that it would be better to climb up the slope to their left and walk up there, between the trees. They could still follow the river but walking would be easier than it was down here with the rocks.
First things first, though. Dief eventually caught on the fact that they were taking a break without him and came out of hiding to settle beside Fraser. Ray climbed down to the water with careful movements, refilled one of the bottles and threw it up to them so Dief could drink. The downside of hiding in the woods was that he couldn’t get to the water without being seen, and apparently that childish game he was playing had been more important to him than his thirst.
Well, it was over now. Fraser made sure that he waited an appropriate time, to avoid giving the impression that this whole thing had been a trap, and then he grabbed the wolf and saddled him with is bag. He thanked him kindly, as if Dief were doing them a favour out of his own free will.
Dief looked very, very accusing. But at least he didn’t look betrayed. The plan had worked.
Fraser handed all the water bottles down to Ray so he could refill them, and after his friend had climbed up to their resting spot again, Fraser pointed up the roots and explained to him that his was a good place to get up that slope.
Ray wasn’t happy and complained some, but then, that was what he did. It was basically his way of communicating. Fraser took it as agreement and was the first to climb.
Ray followed a lot slower, with more curses and complaints, and Dief grumbled and sighed no less than three times before he joined them with three easy jumps. He really had become overly accustomed to the comfortable living in the city. It was a tragedy.
Well, Dief may whine, but Fraser knew it was just for show. All the more important to make him work out some, as exercise and as punishment for trying to slink his duties. Once again, Fraser set a pace that was perhaps a little bit harsher than it had to be. Just for the first kilometre, or so. To make Dief understand that this was no camping trip.
Camping trip… Hadn’t Ray said something about camping? Some story about his father? Fraser frowned as he tried to remember, but he had been concussed at the time, and also, he’d been distracted by the fact that someone was shooting at them. He did remember thinking that that was an impressively bad moment to indulge in childhood memories. Oh well. If it was important, Ray would tell the story again. He wasn’t telling stories nearly often enough, in any case.
Right now, neither of them told the other anything, because once again they were walking several metres apart. Somehow, conversation had been easier when Fraser was hanging over Ray’s shoulders. And for all that his weight understandably slowed his friend down, he hadn’t been moving much slower then than he was now. Or maybe Fraser was overdoing it again. He was beginning to feel a little out of breath, actually, and the kilometre he had set as his sprinting distance wasn’t entirely over yet. Very well. He hadn’t told anyone that they had to keep up this speed for that length, and if he started showing obvious signs of overexertion, Diefenbaker would only feel vindicated for his bad behaviour.
When he turned around, he saw that both Ray and Diefenbaker were a good bit behind him and didn’t try to hide his disapproval. Of course the wolf would stick to the man who gave him an excuse to slow down, and of course Ray wouldn’t try very hard to keep up. It was really quite irritating. Fraser was the one injured, and yet he seemed to be the only one making an effort to get them anywhere before nightfall.
He stopped, leaning against a tree in a gesture he hoped looked casual rather than restful, and waited for his friends to catch up with him.
Ray was limping. It wasn’t much of a limp, but now that Fraser wasn’t distracted by walking and looking the other way, it was noticeable that the other man was in some pain from the way he set his feet and from the thin line beside his mouth.
He waited until the others were right beside him before he started walking again, a little slower this time. “Are you okay?” he asked. “You walk like your feet are hurting.”
“My feet are hurting,” Ray informed him. “Didn’t you know? People from the city can only walk on flat surfaces.”
“Now, that’s not true,” Fraser good-naturedly corrected him. “Some of the world’s best cross runners come from big cities.”
“Yeah? Well, I have a suggestion: Don’t ask me if my feet hurt after days of hiking in new shoes if you’re just going to be a smartass about it.”
Technically, Fraser hadn’t asked if Ray’s feet hurt, he’d merely made an observation. Even know, light-headed and euphoric with the ability to see and walk and the prospect of rescue, he knew better than to point that out.
“It’s never wise to wear new shoes on a long trip through nature,” he lectured instead. According to Ray’s glare, that hadn’t been the wisest thing to say either.
“You’re right,” Ray snapped. “I must have forgotten that particular bit of hiking wisdom when I went on this trip that was supposed to end at your cabin. Maybe I should have gone to the guy who spend the last two days trying to kill us and told him, Hey, I’m wearing new shoes, so please don’t crash this plane in the freaking wilderness!”
Fraser bit his lips, trying not to show how taken aback he was by the harsh words. Ray had been in a bad mood all day, and he became even more sarcastic than usual when his mood was bad, but now he’d sounded almost hostile.
“Well, I’m sorry, Ray,” he tried. “I was merely trying to make sure you were okay.”
Apparently he sounded more hurt than he had anticipated, because Ray sighed and his aggression disappeared from one second to the next. “Yeah, I’m fine. Got blisters and they are ruining my day, but I’m fine. How about your head? Don’t forget to drink again.”
Almost on autopilot, Fraser pulled out his bottle and drank a few sips. “My head is much better. I am sure there are band aids for you blisters in the first aid kit.”
“Already used them, Benny. It’s fine. Not as bad as yesterday.”
Fraser frowned, wondering when Ray would have taken off his shoes to take care of his feet, but then he remembered that he had slept through all of last night and Ray hadn’t.
“It’s not much longer, Ray.” For once, he thought before he spoke and tried to say something actually uplifting. “Let me carry the bags from now.”
“Not carrying the bags isn’t going to help my feet, Benny. Imagine you tear something in your back and end up paralysed again. How much longer?”
“Well, at this pace we should be able to make it just after nightfall.”
“Wow.” Ray was silent for a moment, looking up to the sky where the sun was shining through the leaves right over their head. “You really thought that would make me feel better, didn’t you?”
“I appreciate you trying.”
For a while they walked in silence, Dief by their side. Fraser was okay with the pace and apparently so was Ray, since he stayed right behind him. Eventually he asked, “How do you even know where to go?”
“Now that I can see, I recognize some landmarks, as well as the course of the river. I know there is a ranger station near that river, not far from here. It should be manned.”
“Should be?” Ray shook his head, clearly not wanting clarification on that one. “You’ve been here before? Have you been everywhere in Canada?”
“Of course not. With the size of the country, that would require a lot more travelling that I managed to get done in my life so far. I did, however, intensely study the maps I found in my grandparents’ library when we–”
“Oh, spare me,” Ray interrupted him with a groan. “I don’t want to know.”
Not all that much later, Ray stumbled, once again, over a root, because once again he hadn’t gotten his feet off the ground far enough. He didn’t immediately fall but he lost his balance, stumbled a few steps forward and then went to the ground with a small whimper.
Fraser thought of his blisters and winched in sympathy. Meanwhile, Ray shoved the bags off him, moved so he was sitting with his back against a tree and pulled his knees against his body.
Fraser waited for him to get up. Ray sat on the ground like a petulant child.
“Do you feel like taking a break, Ray?” Fraser asked.
“Yes, Benny. I would like that very much.”
“Well, I suppose we can rest for a few minutes.” Fraser didn’t feel like resting, though. He was getting a little exhausted, but he was also full of nervous energy, and more importantly, he was eager to get going. The last thing he wanted was to spend another night out in the open under these circumstances.
The ranger station wasn’t far now. They would be able to reach it in four or five hours if they aimed straight for it, but he didn’t have his compass anymore and knew it would be stupid to walk deeper into the forest without a reliable means of orientation and trust that they wouldn’t run in circles again. Following the river was the safe and sensible thing to do, but the river was curving and sticking with it would add another two or three hours to their trip.
Or more, if more breaks had to be taken.
“I will look around, see if I can find us some food.”
Ray raised his eyebrows. “What, you hope someone threw a burger out of a plane? Or do you plan on strangling a squirrel?” He suddenly grimaced. “You won’t have us eat worms again, do you?”
“It’s better than starving to death, Ray.”
“The jury’s still out on that one.”
“It’ll be another seven or eight hours before we make it anywhere, at the least.”
“I’ll take my chances.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Ray.” Fraser knew his friend didn’t mean it. By now he had to be hungry enough to eat anything.
Ray called after him when he walked away. “Hey, where are you going?”
“Looking for food, as I said.”
“You can dig for worms here.
“I could, but I wouldn’t have much of a chance of finding any in this earth. I will not go far.”
“You’d better not!”
He didn’t. There was too much of a risk of losing his way, so Fraser stayed close to the river as before, always keeping the water in earshot as he walked around looking for a promising spot to dig for worms.
A part of him was happy to be useful again. Another part of him was impatient to get moving and irritated about the delay. He couldn’t blame Ray for wanting a break, though. Blisters were painful. And the long hiking trip had to be hard on someone who wasn’t used to it. Fraser just hoped his friend wouldn’t make the mistake of taking off his shoes while he rested. He’d never manage to get them on again.
Eventually Fraser found what he was looking for. It wasn’t much, but it was better than nothing. He stuffed the handful of worms into his pockets and returned to Ray and Diefenbaker, who were waiting side by side with Ray using Dief as an armrest and petting his head in a way he almost never did at home.
Since collecting wood and starting a fire would take too much time, the worms had to be eaten raw. Fraser divided them into two equal portions and got his down in a second. It didn’t du much for his very empty stomach, but it was all he could do.
Ray looked at his dinner with obvious disgust and had to be talked into eating with quite some effort. When he was done, he gagged and drank half a bottle of water.
“If you throw up, it will have been for nothing,” Fraser kindly told him and got a glare in return.
He stood, stretched, and looked up to the sky. The sun had begun its decent. It was still several hours until nightfall, but by then, Fraser wanted to be a lot closer to the ranger station.
Ray remained sitting on the ground.
“What are you waiting for?” Fraser asked. “We should really get going.”
“Dief and I are on strike,” Ray informed him. Dief said nothing, but he stayed where he was, looking up at Fraser without comment.
“Don’t be silly, Ray.”
“I’m not. I’m not moving. Neither is Dief.”
Dief agreed with silent solidarity. Fraser, on the other hand, was beginning to get irritated again. “Ray, Dief, don’t be childish. We need to go, or else we will have to spend another night out here.”
“We’ve been resting for, what? A quarter hour? Twenty minutes? Make it thirty and we might consider moving again.”
Fraser frowned at them, almost glared. Then he snorted and sat back down. If he was forced to wait, it was sensible to not waste energy by running around pointlessly. Just to make sure the other two understood how he thought about this, he sat with his back to them and looked down onto the river.
He was aware that Ray didn’t have his experience in the wild, or his training and endurance, but Fraser had just been injured in a plane crash and was still recovering, and if he could carry on without complaining, Ray really ought to be able to pull himself together in the interest of their survival. And Dief didn’t have any excuse at all. He was used to the wild, and had endurance. He was simply lazy, and Ray was supporting him in it.
Fraser waited as long as he could abide, then he got to his feet again. Ray looked at him. “That wasn’t ten minutes,” he said accusingly.
“Yes, it was.”
“No, it wasn’t. How would you know, you don’t have a watch.”
“Neither do you, Ray. And my sense of time is impeccable.”
It was, too. Therefore, Fraser knew that it had not, in fact, been ten minutes. But Ray’s sense of time was not impeccable, so he had no other choice but to take Fraser’s word for it.
Apparently, he did. He didn’t look happy, but he got back to his feet with a grimace and a wince.
It was not that Fraser wasn’t sympathetic. It had been a long time since he had blisters himself, but he remembered that even a small one could make walking torture. At least Ray had treated them. Now all they could do was keep going and make sure this didn’t take longer than it had to.
Dief demonstratively lay flat on the ground, but if he didn’t want to be left behind, he’d have no choice but to follow sooner or later. At least he was still wearing the first aid kit. A small mercy.
Ray’s movements were stiff when he bent down to pick up the bags. Fraser noticed it somewhere in the back of his mind, as a fact he observed but did not pay attention to. A second later something clicked in his mind and he looked at his friend again, for the first time in days really seeing him.
Ray looked tired. He looked deeply, utterly exhausted, and he moved like everything hurt, rather than only his feet. His face was pale and sunken in and his mouth a thin line of effort and determination.
For the first time since the crash, Fraser was forced to acknowledge that Ray had been in the plane crash as well. He had gotten away without notable injury, but it had probably been a rather traumatic even for him none the less. And the whole day Fraser had been unable to walk and needed to be carried, Ray had been the one carrying him.
Perhaps he was entitled, after all, to feeling like he deserved a break.
Suddenly, Fraser felt a little bad for lying to him about the time. Still, it couldn’t be helped now, and regardless of his friend’s state, they had to get going.
He bent down and snatched up one of the bags before Ray could grab it. “I can carry one of them,” he explained, and before Ray could protest, he added, “There is no need to treat me as though I were a child.”
“No, but you are injured. Yesterday you couldn’t even walk, which puts you behind most children over the age of one.”
“I am quite recovered. Since there no longer is a risk of me tumbling into the river should I lose my balance, I’m willing to take my chances with this bag.” Fraser did his best to look very serious when he hefted the bag onto he back. It was heavier than expected. It seemed like he had managed to pick the one that contained the axe and other tools. “If I should indeed fall, I trust you will help me up.”
“Don’t count on it,” Ray growled, but he let it go. And Fraser was counting on it, because he knew he could.
They continued on. Fraser was taking it more slowly this time, no longer forcing Ray to follow at a pace that was difficult for him to pull off by this time, but urgency still kept him pushing them on. Diefenbaker, who had little by way of excuse, eventually gave up his graceless rebellion and caught up with them.
They had a few more breaks of no more than a few minutes. By the time the sunlight began to fade, Fraser estimated another two hours to the cabin and hoped he wasn’t wrong.
The maps he had studied were quite outdated by now. Contrary to what he had led Ray to believe, he wasn’t even certain the ranger station was still there. He hoped so, though. At least the building had to be there, and that would be much of an improvement to their situation. They could rest there, and Fraser and Dief could hunt and fish and make sure they wouldn’t starve while they worked up their strength to get to the nearest town.
Fraser was reasonably sure the station was still active.
Halfway through sunset, Ray took their bottles again and climbed down to the river before it got too dark to safely do so. Fraser would have liked to do that for him, but Ray was quite insistent. He as also having problems getting back up again and needed Fraser to pull him the last bit, so it was probably a good thing he’d waited where he was.
There were more rocks now, even up here, and the trees were standing closer, the branches lower. In the face of that, Fraser contemplated resting here for another night and continuing the next day, when they could see, but by now he was almost sick with hunger, and certainly Ray was no better. After a brief discussion they agreed to finish this today.
After another, very short break, Fraser let Ray take the lead, simply because he was afraid he’d been walking too fast for his exhausted friend. Indeed, they were quite a bit slower with Ray setting the pace, although Fraser could see he was trying and felt vaguely ashamed for the constantly suppressed desire to urge him on. After a while he noticed that Ray was limping a lot stronger now.
“You’re hurt,” he observed. “Did you fall?”
“Blisters, I told you.”
Fraser frowned. He didn’t understand why Ray was lying to him. There was no point in hiding an injury in this situation. In fact, it could be quite dangerous. “You are favouring your right leg, much more so than before.”
“I twisted my ankle,” Ray admitted.
“Just now?” Looking back, Fraser thought that Ray had been limping, if not strongly, for quite some time.
“When I fell earlier.”
Fraser tried to remember when Ray had fallen. Sure, he’d stumbled over the roots, but he’d caught himself. And before that he had been walking behind the Mountie, so maybe Fraser had missed it. He hadn’t actually seen much of what Ray did after he’d used his chance to take the lead in the wake of…
Well, in the wake of Ray’s fall on the rocks.
“Ray, that was half a day ago!”
“Was it?” In the near dark, it was hard to read Ray’s face, but he sounded grumpy. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
“No point in making a bad situation worse by complaining about things that can’t be changed, right?”
Fraser scowled at having his own argument thrown back at him. “That was not quite the example I meant to set by that.”
“Well, it’s the example you did set. Anyway, twisting your ankle is not the same as being blind, so don’t even start.”
Fraser opened his mouth, then closed it again, accepting that the situation couldn’t be changed. But once they where safely back in Chicago, or indeed at his Father’s cabin if they ever made it there, he would have a long discussion with his friend. Ray needed to understand that refraining from mentioning an injury, however small, in a situation like theirs, was irresponsible and in fact quite infuriating, as Fraser found.
To Ray’s luck, however, Fraser was not the type to yell and snap out his frustration. He trained his eyes onto the ground instead, until he found what he was looking for, and then he picked it up and handed it to Ray without any comment.
The broken off branch was slim, but long and strong. It would help some to keep the weight off Ray’s hurting leg.
For a long time they walked in silence. It got harder, even for Fraser. The night wasn’t that dark, but the thickness of the trees forced them to walk very close to the slope leading down to the river in order to benefit from the light of the full moon, and both of them caught their foot on the rocks more than once. Fraser could hear Ray’s sharp intake of air every time it happened.
If he fell here, or lost his balance, he might tumble down the slope and seriously hurt himself, or even end up in the river. Fraser made sure that the distance between them remained short, but he, too, was less sure-footed that he had been during the day.
The exhaustion added to the general hardship. Not only did Fraser’s head hurt worse than it had in the morning, he also seemed to feel every bone in his body, and the bag he was carrying had long since become a burden. Handing it back to Ray, however, was not an option.
Progress was slow, painful and exhausting for both of them, but progress was being made. Walking turned into an automatic motion, as did avoiding rocks and branches. In a way, it was almost elating to lose himself in the simple act of motion. For Fraser, at least. So lost he was in it that when finally the soft glow of artificial light shone though the trees before him, it actually took him by surprise.
Ray’s first idea at seeing the lights was to drop all their bags since they now knew for certain that they wouldn’t need them for survival anymore, but Fraser would not let him. For one, they did not yet know if the cabin before them was really manned by friendly rangers instead of, say, crazy drug dealers who set camp in there. The other and more important reason was that littering was a crime.
They managed the last few dozen metres with the luggage, and then Ray dropped everything in front of the door while Fraser opened it and politely announced their presence.
The two men inside were startled, but not armed, and obviously neither crazy nor drug dealers. It made for a nice change in their luck.
The rangers knew who they were. In the next minutes, Fraser and Ray learned that they had become minor celebrities in this part of the world, due to their missing status and general assumption of their tragic demise. One of the rangers immediately went to call civilisation and inform the world of their survival, and the other took Fraser to a backroom where he took a look at his head wound and then checked him over. He had had, as it turned out, some medical training, and while Fraser no longer needed his services, he took it as another sign that things had improved greatly for him, Ray and Diefenbaker.
The ranger’s name was Jim. Fraser told Jim that he was quite alright now, thank you very much, and Ray, standing in the doorway, told Jim that Fraser had hurt his head in the plane crash, and that he had been unable to move him legs at all the day before, and that he had been subjected to dehydration and hadn’t eaten in days. He also mentioned, in regard to the lack of legs Fraser had suffered from, that he had been shot rather recently and that the bullet was still lodged close to his spine. Then Ray disappeared from the doorway and left Fraser to his fate.
Jim took his time. Fraser wasn’t going to go anywhere before he and Ray would be taken to the next town in the morning, so there was no reason to hurry, he argued. In the end he applied a new, clean bandage to the gash on Fraser’s head, confirmed Fraser’s assumption that the temporary paralysis was not something to worry about and gave him a couple of aspirin for the lingering headache. He also told him to get checked out at a hospital once he found one, but that was something both Fraser and Ray would be subjected to anyway once official forces got their fingers on them.
Well. As a Mountie, it was his duty to present himself in good health and capable of fulfilling his duties to the citizens whose safety he was responsible for. The same went for Ray. Except the Mountie part. And for Diefenbaker, whom Fraser hadn’t seen since entering the cabin. He was probably eating someone’s dinner right now, letting himself be petted and pitied for the hardship of having had to carry one bag and a blanket.
Fraser was quite looking forward to getting something to eat himself. He had been given the leftover half of a sandwich while Jim was poking him, but it had done little more than remind him just how hungry he was. He would never admit it to Ray, but worms were not his idea of a good meal either. Right now, he wanted proper food even more than he wanted to lie down and rest.
Jim seemed to read his thoughts, unlikely though that was. He explained that he would throw together a quick snack for them and offered the comfort of his and his partner’s beds in the two small rooms to the left. Fraser considered politely declining, unwilling to impose on the two men, but then he thought about Ray who would certainly have no such reservations. Perhaps one of the beds would suffice, then. He could sleep on the floor and Jim and Eric, the rangers, could make a similar arrangement.
Ray would probably be okay with that, he thought. Or perhaps Ray would insist on Fraser taking the bed because he seemed to have gotten it into his head that the Mountie was somehow fragile just because he had been blind, disoriented and legless for a while. There might be yelling, or at least snapping, and then Ray might end up sleeping on the floor instead and doubtlessly tomorrow he would be even grouchier than today. Fraser wouldn’t give in easily, but he wasn’t sure he had the energy for any kind of discussion tonight and eventually went back to considering just taking the offer as it was. For Ray’s sake, yes.
Diefenbaker could sleep on the cushioned bench in the hall. There would be no bed for him tonight, oh no!
Except the bench was already taken. Ray was on it, half sitting and half lying, as if he had sat down to rest and then fallen asleep, sliding all the way down. His long lashes were resting firmly against his cheeks and Fraser knew, with absolute certainty, that not even a gunshot would be able to wake him.
The fondness that came over him at the sight wasn’t entirely unexpected. Ray did that to him, sometimes, because he was so loud and confusing and plain different from Fraser, but he was also loyal and brave and much stronger than he thought he was. And because the last few days had been very hard and Ray had quite literally shouldered most of the weight. Sometimes all of it.
Except for the little bit of weight that Dief had been carrying.
Eric was sitting at a desk nearby, typing something on an old typewriter. He gestured to Fraser to be silent but Fraser knew that he didn’t need to be. He kept quiet because at this particular moment, he had nothing to say to anyone who would hear him.
He wondered if Eric already knew that his bed had been given away.
Jim was there as well, following Fraser and talking about food until Eric shushed him. He fell silent because he didn’t know that Ray hadn’t slept in days and had walked much too far and carried far too many bags and people. Dief was underneath the bench, watching Fraser without comment as he leaned down and slid his arm underneath Ray’s back. If he kept lying like this, he’d wake up stiff and miserable. Fraser arranged him in a more comfortable position, then he leaned down even further and slid his other arm under the back of Ray’s knees.
Jim told him, quite harshly, not to do what he was about to do, to think of his back, and asked him if he was an idiot. Fraser, still having nothing to say, ignored him and stood with Ray in his arms.
Ray slept on, completely oblivious. There was hardly any substance to the man, just bones and lean muscles and thin skin that had taken a bullet and an explosion for Fraser. It would have been better if he had gotten hurt in the crash instead of the Mountie. Fraser was physically stronger and Ray weighted less. It wouldn’t have been hard for Fraser to carry him.
But Ray would have made a terrible patient, whining and complaining all the time, and Fraser wouldn’t have thought to distract him with song. Perhaps it was better, after all, the way things had gone. Although, of course, it would have been best if neither of them had been hurt in the crash, or, for that matter, if the plane hadn’t crashed at all.
When Fraser moved towards the two doors on the far side of the room, Jim stopped his complaining and hurried to open one of them. He was glaring, though, and he lingered in the door and watched as Fraser carefully placed his friend on the bed he found on the other side. Bending down was hard; that was when his muscles ached and his back protested, but he refused to just let Ray fall those last few inches.
Jim said something else but Fraser waved him off. He’d take things from here. It was almost funny how after days in the wild with only Ray and Diefenbaker for company, he actually found it hard to stand the company of other people. Right now, at least. Things would be different in the morning. After he got rest. After Ray had woken up and was his normal lively self again.
When they were alone, Fraser sat down on the floor at the foot end of the bed. It was nice to sit, even after almost an hour of doing so while Jim checked him over. Now that there was nowhere to go anymore he felt how tired and exhausted he was. It would be nice to sleep, here, where it was warm.
But first things first. With somewhat stiff fingers, Fraser untied Ray’s shoes and pulled them off his feet, followed by the socks. The feet beneath were bloody from several blisters that had broken open.
“Oh Ray,” Fraser sighed. Stiffly, he pushed himself back to his own feet and walked over to the small sink in the corner of the room. A glass with a toothbrush was standing at the edge of the sink, reminding him of the personal hygiene he’d had to neglect for the past days. It could wait. He would not steal another man’s toothbrush. He would, however, steal another man’s washcloth.
After soaking the cloth in warm water, he snuck out of the room, wondering where Dief had left the first aid kit. Jim and Eric where nowhere to be seen, which suited him fine. He eventually found what he was looking on top of the survival kit, in the corner of the hall, along with Ray’s jacket and his own. Dief watched him from his place on top of the bench, never making a move towards the open door to the bedroom. He seemed quite content where he was and Fraser was quite content to leave him there.
The next minutes he spent carefully washing the blood off Ray’s feet. He removed the band aids that had long since become useless and applied new ones, and then he pushed up the left leg of Ray’s pants to have a look at his ankle. It was swollen and hot to the touch and Ray made a little sound of distress when he touched it. Fraser sighed again. Clearly it had been little else than adrenaline and determination that had kept his friend going. Sometimes he forgot that Ray had it in him, if he had to.
Finally, Fraser soaked the washcloth in cold water and wrapped it around the injured ankle, fixing it there with a stabilizing bandage from the first aid kit. When he was done he covered his friend with a blanket and left him to sleep in peace.
There was a quilt folded on top of the closet. Fraser took it and spread it on the floor beside the bed, making sure before he did so that there was no dirt beneath it. He lay down on it, using his jacket as a blanket and Ray’s as a pillow. It wasn’t all that much more comfortable that sleeping on the rocks had been, but it was warm and they were all safe. That was all Fraser needed to know to sleep well until morning.
3 December 2013