Author’s Note: The following is an excerpt from my novel in progress. James and Katherine were each lost in a wilderness forest before finding each other. They work together to survive and try to find their way out. In this passage, you’ll see James in the lead role, but this is an anomaly. Katherine is the strong leader; James the weaker of the two. But because of injury and illness, Katherine can no longer determine her own fate, and James can no longer be the passive follower that is his nature. Early in his ordeal, James lost one of his boots. He is hiking with one boot, one bare foot.
James and Katherine
James walked bent over, Katherine hanging on his back. He occasionally had to hitch her up higher and bend forward a little more to keep her arms around his neck. She never spoke, and James wasn’t sure if she was asleep or even conscious.
He had been hiking for about an hour, he guessed, with no more focus than his next step. Not that he could muster much attention for that simple exercise. He misjudged a small log in front of him and clipped it with his boot as he stepped over. He barely reached out a hand to a tree in time to regain his balance.
But he did not stop.
The broken branches on the ground jabbing into his bare foot was constant. When the sole of his foot began to sting, he knew his skin had been broken. Many times.
But he did not stop.
Katherine cried out, as if she had awoken from a bad dream, or maybe she had banged her ankle, now full of poison and puss, against his leg. Or maybe it was her fractured elbow. It broke his heart to hear her in such misery.
But he did not stop.
One hour stretched into two, then three. The sun was high in the sky but the wind was picking up and the clouds were again starting to thicken. The air was brisk and his bare foot, his fingers, his nose and his ears were almost numb.
“James,” Katherine whispered, her breath warm on his neck. “I’m thirsty.”
“Hang in there,” he said.
He was afraid to stop. Afraid he might not be able to move again. Afraid that if he paused, even for a few minutes, he’d be tempted to try to shelter for the night. And as cold as it was becoming, he was afraid they would die.
So he did not stop.
But after another two hours, he came to an impassable precipice. He looked to his left, then to his right. The mountain had heaved up its jagged sandstone for as far as he could see. The stream he had been following gathered in a small pool before tumbling over the rocks and splashing down below. How far below, he couldn’t tell, but from the sounds of it, it was long drop. He walked toward the stream and found a flat boulder and eased Katherine down. She landed on her bad ankle, which was even blacker and more swollen, but she didn’t make a sound. She collapsed, virtually lifeless.
He looked around for shelter, something that would protect her from the wind and rain. He found a small cleft in the rocks, only large enough for Katherine, then went about collecting branches and leaves to make her the best bed he could. He carried her to the small cave and tucked his coat all around her, then took her jacket to collect water and food.
When he returned ten minutes later, he could barely rouse her enough to take a few sips. The berries he laid beside her. He touched her forehead and she was hotter than ever. He pulled off his boot, then his sock, and took it to the water where he washed it as best he could, then brought it still wet and cold, and placed it across her head.
“l’ll be back in a few minutes,” he said. Then he kissed her cheek.
He looked up at the sun and judged he had a couple of hours before dark. His plan was simple: explore a little, try to find the best way down the mountain, then come back and spend the night with Katherine. And pray.
James Brown was in church most Sunday mornings, and sometimes worked the Bible into his reading routine. But praying wasn’t his strength. He felt selfish when he prayed. But as he climbed down around the rocks, he found himself pleading, not for himself, but for Katherine.
“Please, God, let her live.” Over and over again. He knew she probably wouldn’t make it. And if she died, he wouldn’t be far behind. “Please, God, let her live.”
He made it down the rocky cliffs and once again began his mindless, step after step after step, ignoring the all pain and weariness and mental fatigue. The ground leveled out and though he noticed, he had lost his purpose, his reason for leaving Katherine alone, and was simply walking again, his head light and dizzy, his eyes watering, his lips numb.
Scratches on his leg. A thorn in his foot.
The wind blowing hard. His body shivering.
Underfoot, there were no sticks, no rocks, the ground smooth like soft mulch. Then as quickly as the respite came, it was gone. Sticks, thorns, rocks. He had gone maybe fifty feet when he stopped. He turned and looked back, then started retracing his steps.
He stepped out of the underbrush and onto the groomed trail.
His heart raced. A whimper of joy released itself and at once he felt new life energize his body. He looked up the trail – north, by reckoning of the setting sun – then down the trail, south. He would go fifteen minutes, he told himself, then head back to Katherine. Tomorrow he would find a way to get her down to the trail.
He took a few steps south. Then he stopped, took off his shirt and tied it to a tree to mark the spot that would lead him back to Katherine. He started walking, then began a slow jog. The prospect of someone being just over the next little rise, or around the next curve of the trail, was too much. He couldn’t temper his hope with the rational thought he needed to survive. So he ran.
Fifteen minutes passed. Just over the next ridge. Thirty minutes.
And then the last of the evening sun betrayed him, and it was dark.
He looked down the trail, realizing he had gone the wrong way, and turned around to go back to Katherine. And just as quickly as the sun had vanished, so did his hope. He had never felt such despair. As the last of his adrenalin faded from his muscles, the lightness in his head returned and the fatigue that had been building over the last few days could no longer be resisted.
James Brown took two more steps and collapsed in the middle of the trail.
copyright Joseph E Bird, 2014,