The plane circled the lake over the trees and Daniel David Benton smothered the ember of the fire with the heel of his boot. He kicked dirt over the ashes and then walked to the edge of the water.
The plane came down past the dark, green trees and landed its pontoons hard on the still water. A fish jumped twenty yards from the plane’s landing and two sets of waves spread out over the blue lake.
The propeller whirred loudly as the plane turned towards Daniel and then approached him on the small, rocky beach. The pilot accelerated and then cut the engine. After a few moments, wood frogs broke the silence on the far side of the lake. The plane drifted towards the beach and then the pilot set anchor. The waves from the plane’s landing pushed on, farther and farther up the shore.
“Jim,” Daniel said, his voice hoarse.
“Dan,” Jim said and stepped from his plane into the shallow water.
Jim pulled the plane around its pivot on the anchor so that the passenger’s side faced the beach. He opened the door and lifted a sack out of the plane and brought it over to Daniel.
“You modify the rations like I asked?” Daniel said.
“No canned cigarettes, no canned chocolate, and no canned biscuits. Added two Hershey’s bars and a pack of Lucky Strikes.”
Daniel nodded and rooted around in the pack.
“Your voice,” Jim said. “It’s hoarse. You all right?”
“Hurts, but I haven’t spoken in two weeks.”
“Huh, yeah. Guess I didn’t think about that.”
Daniel smiled. “Yeah.”
Daniel pulled a .38 Special from the canvas bag. “And this?”
“Captain Falks thinks it’s a good idea for you to have one in the field.”
“For what? In case I run into the Russians?”
“No, for self-defense, for animals.”
“Jim, a .38’s not going to stop a bear, a big cat, or a wolf. I’m not taking this,” he said and held out the gun. “It’s dead weight.”
“Captain said for you to keep it. Use it for game, if you like.”
“If I had wanted to hunt, I’d have taken a rifle. Game takes too much time, and I can’t survey much if I’m tracking, butchering, and cooking my meat.”
“Hell, I don’t know, Dan. Do whatever you want, but if I head back to base with that gun,
it’s my ass—and I’m not having that.”
“Bottom of the bag.”
Daniel put the gun back and found two boxes of bullets next to the matches and the pack of Lucky Strikes. He took out both the matches and the cigarettes and then opened the pack. He watched two ducks land on the water at the far end of the lake. “Anything else from the Captain?” He placed a cigarette between his lips.
“Just that you did a great job with the last map. Says you’re the best.”
“Yeah. I bet,” Daniel said and lit the cigarette.
Daniel pulled on the cigarette and took some papers from his pocket. “This isn’t going to be what he wants,” he said and unfolded the two charts. He set them side by side on the beach. Jim kneeled down beside him, and Daniel waved his free hand at the map on the left. “The ravine’s no good. It’s all granite and shale and the grading’s too steep. It’s an eight percent incline.” Daniel flicked the ash from the cigarette over the rocks. “Here,” Daniel pointed to the map on the right. “We have a creek, but it’s small, and there’s fifty feet of flat land to the right of it. The grading is six and a half percent and there’s hardly any shale. It’s got a good foundation but we could, if we had to, make a road.”
“You weren’t supposed to map that route.”
“Yeah,” Daniel said and pulled on his cigarette.
“You were supposed to try the valley over to the east.”
“I looked at it. It’s all swamp.”
Jim shook his head. “The hell they want to put a road through this?”
Daniel shrugged. “It’ll come, one day or another.”
“I don’t see it. There’s no reason to be here.” Jim looked out across the lake.
“Maybe,” Daniel said, “but people are coming, one way or
“I don’t see it.”
“Well, I guess we’re lucky that the U.S. government didn’t order you to chart the terrain and survey the road.”
“Guess so,” Jim said and stood up. “Besides, nothing happens out here.”
Daniel watched a red-tailed hawk circling above the trees. “Guess so.”
Daniel gathered the charts, stood up, and handed them to Jim. Jim took the old charts and pulled out several new ones from his pocket and opened one.
“Basically, the same as the last assignment. Just you and the woods and no one for hundreds of miles. The cover is the same, about ninety miles in a straight line, but probably a hundred and fifty or a hundred and sixty with all the up and down.” Jim pointed along the hills on the aerial chart. “Around here,” Jim tapped the map with his index finger, “you’ll run into some long patches of what almost looks like prairie, about eight days in or so. Once you’ve passed them, change your direction and head southwest. You’ll come to a lake about twice the size of this one, and that’s where I’ve picked for the next rendezvous in two weeks. Looks a little bit like a quarter moon from above, has a beach along the northern edge.”
“If I’m not there, you know I’m dead.”
“You say that as if you’re doing something like living out here.”
Jim folded the newly mapped charts he had taken from Daniel and waded into the water. He swung the plane in the direction of the open lake and then pulled the anchor. By the time he had started the engine, Daniel was back at his campsite. His watch read 7:08. He turned back to wave at the plane, and as it passed out of sight, the hum of the engine faded as it pushed into the sky.
Daniel added the new supplies, minus the pistol and the ammunition, to his pack and left the empty bag beside the campfire. He turned the gun over in his hand and checked it to make sure the chambers were empty. He threw the gun on top of the smoldering fire and then walked to the edge of the water with the boxes of bullets. He threw the first box into the lake and watched it splash into the water. As he threw the second, it opened in mid-air, cascading bullets across the surface of the water.
“Dead weight,” he whispered and walked back to the campsite.
He pulled the pack on and walked south into the woods. The sun disappeared under the pine, spruce, and cedar trees, and a soft, green glow covered the forest floor. He walked through the fern covered underbrush and felt the weight of the pack sink into his shoulders and pull against his back. Descending slowly, the ground fell away into the trees. He walked at an even pace and listened to the sound of his own breath and the brush beneath his feet.
After he had been walking for a few miles, he came to the bottom of the hill and saw that it ended in a shallow, three-foot ravine. Daniel stopped short before the edge. His heart pounded. He took the pack off. Two squirrels watched as he took a compass and an altimeter from his bag. He watched them dig around the pine needles at the bottom of the ravine and then they ran into the trees.
Daniel looked at the compass, the altimeter, and his watch, and then wrote down his measurements on the back of one of the charts. He put the equipment back and then looked at his watch again. 11:12. He looked down the path of the ravine and watched it curve slightly. He took the pack from the ground and pulled it up and over his shoulders onto his sweat-drenched back. When he had reached the other side of the ravine, he looked up the steady incline. He paused and then began climbing up the hill as he listened to the sound of his breath and watched the shadows among the green.
Miles up, the trees broke into a clearing a hundred yards from a rock face set into the side of the hill. The forest opened in a wide ring around the cliff, the hill sloping up evenly on each side. Daniel followed the hill through the trees and then walked out over the ledge. Cedar and spruce lined the overhang and a single spruce stood out at an angle over the drop. Daniel guessed the cliff was maybe eighty feet wide and seventy-five feet high. Set back from the trees further down the hill, he could see over their tops to the north. He took the pack off and peered at his watch. 14:18.
Taking a can of vegetables and beef from his rations, he opened it with calm, even motions. He sat on the ledge and poured the contents of the can back into his mouth. The soft, cooked vegetables blended with the thick, fatty taste of the meat. Three golden eagles circled the forest before him and he watched a fourth come up from the grass in the clearing. Gray clouds pushed over the landscape from the west. They drew a steady line across the horizon going from north to south. The mountains rose high in the distance to the east. Daniel scooped the rations at the bottom of the can with his first two fingers and then licked them clean. He picked up his canteen. Two of the birds had moved north from the group, two had remained. He took a long drink. He placed the empty can on the ledge and then looked at it against the pale stone. After a moment, he took some measurements with his instruments and wrote them down on the back of his chart. Studying the rough chart, he looked at his compass and adjusted his course.
At the top of the next hill, he took more measurements and looked up into the canopy. The sky had clouded over and had begun to gray. He glanced at his watch. 16:23. He shook his head and descended into the trees.
Four miles down the other side of the hill, Daniel heard a soft rushing further into the woods. After another mile, the sound had grown into a hum and then a rumble, at which point he found himself at the edge of a dark-colored, quick-moving stream. He dropped his pack, pushed his hat back on his head, got down onto his hands and knees and stuck his face into the ice-cold water. He waited until he needed to breathe and then he pulled his face up and gasped. Putting his lips against the water again, he drank. When he was finished, he pulled water from the stream over his head and neck and let it pour down the center of his back. He sat back on his knees, breathed deeply, and grinned. His breath settled as he watched the stream. Looking up, he saw the canopy completely covered the width of the stream. Sunlight caught the water only at odd angles between the shade. He checked his chart, saw that the stream was not there, and penciled in its location. He took a few other measurements and then refilled his canteens. After he had taken his equipment and supplies and bundled them up, he found a fallen branch the width of his wrist and about ten feet long. He took it to the edge of the water and lowered it into the stream. He was almost in to his shoulder when the branch touched bottom. He set the stick aside and looked at the eleven or twelve feet of deep, fast-moving water that separated him and the other side. He listened to the calls of the robins and the chickadees and then he looked up and down the stream. After he placed the pack on his shoulders, he moved east.
A mile away, he saw a thick, moss covered spruce log crossing the length of the stream. When he got to the tree, he ran his hand over the moss and felt the wood chip into thin, brittle chunks as it fell away. He kicked his foot into the trunk a few times and watched a half-inch of splintered wood drop away. Kicking the wood in the same place a few more times, he saw only dust float to the ground. The color of the wood beneath the rotting bark was still a honey brown. He climbed up onto the log and stood carefully. Hands out, he side-stepped over the water an inch at a time, the carpet softness of the wood giving ground as he followed the dark line of the moss over the quick-moving water. Halfway across, his left foot slipped out and he bit his lip hard as he reeled to keep from falling. He jerked to the right and then to the left and then ran slipshod nearly stumbling forward. As he made the other end of the log, he grabbed one of its dead branches that snapped under the pressure and pivot-jumped for the other side. Landing on his feet, he fell forward—face in the dirt and laughed. His heart was racing. The dead branch was still in his hand. He sat up slowly and looked at the log. Then he inspected the branch while the earthy, metallic flavor of blood filled his mouth and he licked his lip. Standing back up, he brought his hand to the tear and measured its length against his fingertips. The cut was a finger-width-long and shallow to the touch. In the light beneath the trees, the blood was a dark red. He washed his hand in the water and then washed his face. He continued to move south. The terrain leveled out as he lost the sound of the stream. The tops of the trees swayed in the wind and he saw green in the distance, green beneath him, and green above.
When the shade from the trees had become dark, Daniel stopped and looked about. The trunks nearest to him were a deep burgundy, and the ones a little ways on were almost black. He looked at the time. 21:38. He set the pack down between two trees and then lifted his arms over his head. As he stretched his fingers towards the sky, he felt the muscles from his neck to his calves. He felt them move, twist, grind, and ache. He felt them become warm and sore. He dropped his arms to his side and rolled his shoulders forward and back. He stood and stared into the fading light, feeling his body heavy and dull. Leaning over his pack, he took out his tent, the stakes, and a thin rope. He strung the rope between two trees, arranged the tent, and staked its sides. Beneath the brush, he scavenged dead wood and gathered it in a pile beside the tent.
Pulling up the ferns in an area around the pile, he threw them out into the blackening forest. He laid down beside the wood, took a match from his pocket, and lit the brittle kindling. The small flame pushed against the twigs, climbing over the yellowed pine needles, and smoking into a dim light. He blew on the embers with steady breaths. The fire took, and he pulled out two cans of ham, eggs, and potatoes. He ate them cold while he listened to a boreal owl call to another boreal owl who called to another boreal owl who called to the first one. The birds formed a chorus stretching into the distance. The fire popped and hissed.
The taste of blood mixed with the eggs, meat, and potatoes. The salt stung in the wound. When he had finished, he poured water into one of the cans. He swirled it around and gathered the food around the sides of the can, then he repeated the process with the other two. He drank the contents of the last rinse and then filled the can to the brim with fresh water. He poured instant coffee into the makeshift mug. He set the can against the edge of the fire and waited. The smoke from the pine bark and twigs smelled peaty and sweet. The forest was dark beyond a few steps. The coffee began to steam and Daniel took a shirt from his pack. He wrapped it around the can and drew it away from the fire. He sipped the black coffee boiling hot.
Taking a chart, a pencil, and an eraser, he went over his math. He played with a few numbers and then notated and mapped his findings. The fire shifted forward and fell onto itself. It scattered cinders and thick smoke into the air. Daniel erased almost everything, leaving only his final figures and the course he had walked. As he was putting his figures away, rain began to fall through the canopy. Drops landed on his hand, his leg, and the chart still beside the fire. He re-folded the heavy paper and stuck it into his back pocket. The rain became a drizzle as he placed the pencil and eraser back in his bag. Looking up into the darkness, unable to see sky or cloud, he listened to the rain fall around him, and then he looked back into his coffee. He sipped and watched the rain hit the fire. The light flickered and the embers hissed. He could no longer hear the owls. When he finished his coffee, he picked up his pack and climbed into the tent. He took two blankets from the bottom of the bag and wrapped them around himself. He laid down with his head against the earth and listened to the raindrops falling softly on the tent. He drifted into the space between sleeping and awake.
The light through the tent was yellowish as Daniel opened his eyes. The wind was pushing hard against the canopy. After crawling out of the tent, he looked up through the trees. He waited for the wind to stop blowing long enough to see through the branches. When it eased, he saw the sky was pale and clear. He looked at the time. 5:58. His hands moved slowly as he took the tent down. Numb and stiff, they warmed gradually, gripping his things lightly, then tighter and tighter. He opened a can of ham and lima beans. The thick, savory paste was chewy and heavy in his mouth. When he was done, he lit a cigarette and watched the end flare bright as he inhaled. He listened to the sound of the wind through the trees. Beneath the upper story, the air was cool and still. He knocked the ashes of the cigarette into his empty can. The smoke rose towards the wind and he looked as far as he could into the woods. The angles of the branches, the roll of the ground, the limitless number of trees. As he exhaled the last of his cigarette, he dropped the stub into the can and tossed it towards the burned out fire. He stood up and pulled his pack on. He felt its weight settle on his hips, and then his knees, and then his ankles. As he walked into the forest, he listened to the sound of his breath and stepped into the rows of trees.
A few miles from the campsite, the forest opened onto a wide ring lined at one end by dead trees. As he entered the clearing, ravens called overhead. Two flew from one dead tree to another. Their calls carried in the now windless sky. As he walked into the tall grass, the long blades brushed against his body. He counted eighteen dead trees. The sun was hot. Near the middle of the clearing, he saw three caribou at the far end opposite the dead trees. None of them lifted their heads from grazing as he stopped and watched their long antlers rising and falling over the makeshift prairie. When he reached the other side of the meadow, he saw that the land sloped down into the trees. He pulled his equipment from his pack and charted his position.
Half a mile from the clearing, he stopped still. He felt his breath in his chest. He placed his hand over his heart and then, gradually, kneeled down and placed his hand to the ground. He felt it move. In the distance, he heard a rumbling that turned into a churning that broke into a roar. Thousands of caribou drove through the trees and down the hill. The brown mass moved as a whole less than fifteen feet from where he stood. Moments passed like eons and Daniel was still. When the last of the caribou had crossed before him, he reached out with a shaking hand and leaned against a tree.
He heard a loud snort behind him. He turned and saw a bull thirty feet away—antlers hanging in a six-foot arc, nose dripping wet, eyes fixed on the spot he stood. He barely saw the caribou lower its head before it charged. Daniel dove behind a tree and felt the animal’s hot breath on his arm as it passed. It ran down the hill to where the other caribou had been, then turned and followed them away.
His heart felt still as it raced in his chest. He slipped the pack from his shoulders and pulled his cigarettes from the bag. He sat with shaking hands while he tried to light a match. When he had the cigarette lit in his mouth, he began to cry. He sat for an hour, then for two hours, and then he got up. He slowly pulled the pack up. He started walking and watched the hill fall away.
When he came to the bottom, he found a wide, shallow river. Small stones lined the bottom of the stream and boulders punctuated the surface of the water. Light caught on the scales of the whitefish in the pools beside the boulders. On the far side, the trees thinned and he could see sunlight on the forest floor. He looked at his watch. 10:17. He pulled his gear from his back and untied his boots. He took his socks off first, then his pants, then his hat and shirt. He took his three canteens and a bar of soap to a boulder beside the shore. The water was cool and the stones were sharp beneath his feet. He poured the contents of one of the canteens over his head and body, and then he lathered his head, limbs, and torso. Taking the rest of the water from the canteens, he managed to rinse half the soap away. He filled all three containers in the stream and then doused them, one after another, over his body again. The water was cold against his skin in the open air and his body prickled with the shock. When he had finished, he stood breathing quickly in the stream and then filled the canteens with fresh water. He brought them back to the shore and packed them away. He sat in the sun and mapped the distance he had covered over the last few hours. When he was dry, he put his clothes back on and carried his boots, socks, and pack across the water. The stream was slow-moving and quiet. On the other side, he dropped his pack, sat down and put on his socks. He looked out across the water and then he checked his watch again. 10:48. He scooted up against the nearest pine and laid his head against the trunk. He watched the dense trees on the other side of the river until he fell asleep.
When he woke, the sky was cloudless and without a wind. He looked at his watch. 11:18. He put his boots back on and started up the hill. The sunlight in the gaps between the trees made his skin hot and sweat began to form on his limbs. After walking a mile up the hill, he saw the outline of a hawk as it flew over the trees. He looked up and then pointed his forefinger and his thumb in the shape of a gun. He followed the bird in the sky, and then he shook his head and smiled. He dropped his hand to his side and started to climb up the hill again. To the west, he heard a gunshot. He turned his head in the direction of the sound and then he heard it again.