The Secret of Cawley’s Skull

PART THREE

KRUK

Chapter 19

          Maybe a thousand steps, that’s about all we traveled the first day. It might have been a mile, but I doubt it. When someone speaks of traveling miles, it’s meant to sound like a significant accomplishment. We didn’t accomplish much that hard, first day.

          I could have gone farther, and so could Bandy, but by the time we had paced off those thousand steps (and those were a thousand of my steps, not a thousand of Mish-Shka’s long strides) the great hound was gasping for a full breath and buckling at the knees. We used the creek bed for a path, so the going wasn’t particularly strenuous. Still, Mish-Shka caved in like a hollow puffball.

          Bandy asked a valid question. “Why did you insist we leave, giant? If this is the extent of your stamina, we should have stayed where we were, and I would have nursed you on fresh trout and saliva soup.”

          And Mish-Shka gave a valid answer. “Strength isn’t something you lie around and wait for. You have to go out and find it. We had to leave sometime, Fawrlingswad.”

          I suggested we try to make it back to the nest, back to the comfort of familiarity. Back to my rubber ball. But Mish-Shka would have none of that. “No, Daks. We have to find Peter and Teena. You were right about Roth … to a degree. He was hurt badly and he had to heal, just like me. But he is younger, and he will heal quicker than I. We’ll make a new bed here and spend the night. Tomorrow, we go it again. Tomorrow, I’ll be stronger, and stronger yet the day after.”

          I, too, had a valid question. My nerves were twitching to ask, “Mish-Shka … how can we expect to catch Peter when we have lain for days while you recuperated? And now we travel a thousand steps at a time and rest? How, Mish-Shka?”  But the old battler was struggling merely to put one foot ahead of the other. It seemed unfair to burden him with a question that answered itself in such a distressing way, so I let my nerves twitch and kept my valid question to myself.

* * *

          We did go farther the next day. Mish-Shka didn’t seem to be in any better shape—he struggled for breath and footing and he was as stiff as a sun-baked carcass—but he strained and pushed and kept going. It was Bandy who insisted that we stop when we did. “Admit it, old geez. You’re whipped,” he said. “You’re dragging a furrow in the mud with your tail. Your tongue’s hanging out so far that lichens are jumping on for the ride. You sound like you’ve got a hive of wasps in your lungs. You’re eyes are red and you’re passing gas like a hot steam vent. Why don’t you give it up for the day?”

          “A bit farther. That’s all … just a bit.”

          A bit here and a bit there. It adds up. That day, we walked until the sun had stopped rising before we rested, and the next, we went even longer. And farther, I presume. By the time six days had passed, we were walking from the sun’s first appearance to its last. Even Bandy marveled at Mish-Shka’s growing endurance. “What we see here, Daks, is evidence of life after death. That monstrous chum of yours was dead, I have no doubt of it. The only thing left for him was to be carried away by indiscriminant scavengers. But we have witnessed an unnatural rejuvenation, some sort of dark miracle. I shouldn’t have to tell you this proves him to be a freak of the first order.”

          But, of course, he did continue to tell me how Mish-Shka was a freak of the first order, without any prompting from me at all.

* * *

          I didn’t know what trail Mish-Shka was following. Whatever spoor it was that drove him forward and made him pick one path over another couldn’t possibly have been anything his nose picked out. Whatever scent Peter and Ah-Teena might have left—assuming they had ever gone through these same woods—was long ago washed away by the fresh snow that greeted us every morning. I had no opportunity to ask Mish-Shka how he knew where to go, or why he was going there. We spoke little while we walked, and whenever we stopped, exhaustion had its way.

          Sleep always came quickly, but it seldom came comfortably. Most nights, we squeezed into a semi-dry spot under a cedar deadfall or projecting rock. But we couldn’t always find even a semi-dry spot in which to camp. More than once, the best we could do was bunch up under a sagging spruce to protect ourselves from the wind. We awoke one morning to find ourselves covered with snow and ice because we had dropped the night before with nothing over us but some thin gooseberry bushes. A miserable awakening, that was. I raced ahead of the others and then ran in circles while they caught up, simply to warm myself.

          Every morning, the snow was a bit deeper and it took longer to melt away. I now understood Mish-Shka’s warning about chest-high snow. It was far from being chest-high on Mish-Shka, but it was coming uncomfortably close to being chest-high on me. When I wasn’t able to find spots that the wind had blown bare, I had to slog through the snow by either hoisting my legs high enough to clear it, or I had to force them through as though I were wading in honey. My muscles would burn with the effort and I would fall behind. The others were continually waiting on me. Mish-Shka remained eminently patient, but Bandy never let pass an opportunity to comment. “Daks, why don’t you simply lie on your back and let the geez and I take turns scooting you across the surface? You know, when I was young, my brothers and I played a game on frozen ponds. We scooted stones or sticks … even dead squirrels … over the ice. The object was to take the prize from one another, you see? Great fun, great fun. I was never the scoot-ee, mind you, so I’m not sure how much fun you would have, but we would certainly move along at a faster pace.”

          Mish-Shka snickered and tried to hide it. For the next several hours, I practiced in my mind all the snappy things I should have said in response, and would certainly say the next time.

* * *

          Eventually, the problem with deep snow took care of itself. The days became so cold that the snow never melted, and a slick crust formed on the top. While this icy surface presented problems of its own, I was able to walk without breaking through. Life was no easier, though. Instead of miserable walking conditions, there was the miserable cold to contend with. During the day was one thing. The journey kept me, if not warm, at least indifferent to the frigid air. But at night, even if we found a good, dry stopover, the cold was unbearable. We huddled together like three earwigs in one nostril and still shivered in our sleep. Mish-Shka curled up around me and offered whatever extra heat he had, but the cold still cut through. Sometimes, I would lie awake, thinking to myself how cold Mish-Shka must be. There was no one wrapped around him. Bandy normally would have preferred to remain separate from Mish-Shka and I. He complained about my snoring and Mish-Shka’s body odor. But as our trek moved into ever colder climes, we would wake in the mornings and find the raccoon enmeshed in the same shivering lump as Mish-Shka and me.

          On one such morning, as Bandy and I sorted out limbs so that I wouldn’t inadvertently walk on his legs, nor he on mine, Bandy asked Mish-Shka a pointed question, possibly to cover his embarrassment at resorting to Ogg flesh for warmth. “Drascalmint all-together, geez. Why do we continue this? What do you hope to prove by dragging us any farther on this ridiculous search for two dim Oggs who are themselves … in all likelihood … as lost as we are? Or dead.”

          Pointed to the extreme, his question, and I have to admit that it had occurred to me more than once in the past days. But for the sake of loyalty (which I believe to be a quality which is best served when bothersome, pointed questions are left unasked) I leapt to Mish-Shka’s defense. “Hey, he knows what he’s doing. Don’t you, Mister Mish-Shka? You know how to find Miss Ah-teena and Peter, don’t you? Looky here, Bandy. Mish-Shka knows secrets about tracking that no raccoon ever dreamt of. Isn’t that right, Mish-Shka? Tell him. Okay, Mish-Shka? Tell him! And Peter and Miss Ah-Teena aren’t ‘dim’ are they, Mish-Shka? Or dead!”

          Mish-Shka sat down and waited patiently for me to finish. “Daks, I don’t know any secrets. I wish I did. But the Rawl’Colmb is right in asking, and I have been remiss in not telling you sooner.”

          “Ha! I knew it.” Bandy danced a victorious jig. “You’ve been leading us on this merry chase simply to show Daks you could still walk, haven’t you?.”

          “Telling me what, Mish-Shka? What didn’t you tell me?”

          Mish-Shka’s voice became as soft and gentle as a tuft of pussy willow. “I don’t believe Peter even came through these woods, and I’m not trying to find them anymore. We have no real hope of doing that now. They are far away by now … I pray. No, we’re going to find Lah-Tsee ourselves. If we chance upon Pete and Teena along the way, so much the better. But I must see to the tribe. That must come first, the whole tribe. And the only way to do that is to reach Lah-Tsee.”

          “You don’t think Peter can do it? Get to Lah-Tsee?” A great lump was forming in my throat. “You think that, well, Peter and Miss Ah-Teena are … are … “

          “I’m not thinking anything of the sort, Daks. There is twice the chance for success if there are twice as many looking, that’s all.”

          “What about Roth and Anna-Bar? What if they found Peter?”

          Mish-Shka shook his head and ice crystals flew from his ears. “We can’t change that. Whether Roth is a threat to Peter isn’t something we have any control over. Daks, dear little Daks … please believe me. If my own death would help them in any way, I … why, I would stop here in my tracks and let the cold do me in right now. But for the time being, Peter and Teena are on their own. There is nothing we can do but wish them well. They’ll be fine, brother. They are strong and smart.”

* * *

          And as a fact, at that very moment, Peter and Ah-Teena were fine. In spite of a near encounter with the dreadful Roth and his witch on the very first night out—and a brush with a profoundly crabby she-bear not long after, and peril in every step they took—at the moment Mish-Shka told me his plan, they were both alive and well.

          Peter provided the details later. We exchanged our memories around a snapping fire in a cave—a different cave—later. Much later. We took turns laughing at the other’s stories. And we took turns crying at each other’s stories. Unfortunately, it seems the best stories have to involve both.

          The route Peter took and the route I took when we first left the tribe were not the same routes for long. During the violent wind storm that had frightened me so, Ah-Teena and he left the stream and went due west, the direction Mish-Shka told them to go. I, too would have gone west, for I had heard Mish-Shka’s instructions. But I must add a sense of direction to the native talents I do not possess.

          Peter had an excellent sense of direction, and so did Ah-Teena, though their excellent senses of direction did not always agree with one another. They were having a disagreement over which way due west was when Bandy first encountered them in that grove of aspens. This was the argument, as Peter described it: “If we trust your idea of where west is, we will be passing the sun as it rises,” he said, and Ah-Teena answered his sarcasm with, “You wouldn’t know west from your own fanny!” She always knew exactly how to jingle Peter in the ways that jangled the most.

          “I should never have allowed you to come. I knew it was a mistake. Never rely on a female for help in a male’s world.”

          That made Ah-Teena angry enough to tell him how she talked Henrietta out of her collar. “Look here, you! If it weren’t for me, you would never have this collar.”

          “Oh,” said Peter. “I suppose you told Henny you were leading this expedition. That the fate of the tribe depended on a fellow female? It would be just like Henrietta to give in to such dull reasoning.”

          “No, Peter. That’s not how I did it. I promised her that if she gave us the collar, you’d become her mate on our return. That’s the arrangement, and you’ll just have to live with it. Now, I’m going west. Are you coming, or are you going to stay here with your eyes bugging out?”

          Peter freely admitted to me that he might have behaved somewhat badly after learning he had been committed to Henrietta. But anyone with the most casual acquaintance with Henrietta could certainly understand his displeasure. And the way he tells it, if he hadn’t stayed behind and sulked for a moment or two, their journey would have ended just over the next rise. When he smelled Roth, Ah-teena was well ahead of him, gloating (as Peter tells it) and paying little attention. “I’d know that devil’s scent even after a thousand life times, Daks. When Roth travels, his shadow lingers behind and corrupts the path. But this wasn’t a remnant I felt. It was on a fresh breeze. Roth was near!”

          Peter rushed ahead and landed on Ah-Teena’s back, taking her down just as she was about to step into a rather exposed position. A few feet further and she would have been well away from cover and out into a small meadow. Peter’s weight and speed rolled them over like pinecones and carried them both down a slight hill, away from the meadow. Ah-Teena came up ready for a fight. Her lips curled up and she made for Peter like a falling icicle. But Peter pushed a leg into her mouth and let her bite to her heart’s delight. “It hurt. My, my, my, did it hurt. But it was the only way I could stop her from yelling. I kept pushing my leg into her throat … just kept pushing until she gagged. Only then was I able to whisper the problem. ‘Roth’ was all I had to say, and she stopped gagging.

          “She was ready to go at them, Daks. I swear, it was all I could do to keep that hothead from taking after them and settling up. She had as much reason as anyone in the tribe to want Roth and Anna-Bar ripped up and spat out. On our bellies, we climbed back to where we could see the meadow, and seconds later, they slunk through like two sulfur smells … and were gone. The breeze was with us, so they couldn’t have known we were there. ‘Coward’ she called me. ‘Coward!’  But it was clear to me, then and now, that our mission was more important than revenge. And … and Daks … I wasn’t at all sure we could take them.”

          In the telling, Peter’s eyes watered when he remembered how Ah-Teena had scorned him for not finishing it with the two D’Buerr Munns. “She called me a coward, and I felt like one. Maybe she was right, Daks. If only we had taken on those demons then and there  …”

          If only … if only …

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