Monday, June 06, 2005

 

the child, sixty-eight


They set out early the next morning, right after sun up. Stone led the way back to the stream, Jack following along, both of them keeping a sharp look-out for anything that might sneak up on them. Between them they were carrying most of the canteens from the camp, to refill them after they had inspected the site of Stone's battle with the wolves.

The stream flowed into a small picturesque pool within easy sight from the path along the valley floor, so that Stone was doubly perplexed that he hadn't spotted it the day before - had never seen it at all until the wolves had chased him into it. Now he and Jack followed the stream up from the pool, stepping carefully to avoid destroying any of yesterday's tracks.

'Here,' Stone said at last. And stopped. They both stopped. Both surveyed the site first without moving, sweeping the ground with their eyes, looking for anything out of the ordinary. And spotting nothing.

'All right,' said Jack. 'Let's take a closer look now. I'll check this side of the stream, and you look over there.'

Stone splashed across the stream and began searching the places where the two wolves had stood the day before. These were the right spots; he was sure of it. The whole scene was certainly burned into his memory forevermore. And yet now, just like yesterday after the battle, there was nothing here to show that any of it had ever happened.

Frustrating.

'There ought to be something,' Stone muttered to himself. 'Something. Paw prints. Tufts of hair. Blood.' He snorted. 'Bodies!'

But there was nothing.

'Uh...' said Jack.

Stone bounded back across the stream. 'Find something?' he asked eagerly.

'Something, yeah,' said Jack. 'Something the flies like.'

He pointed. There by the side of the stream was a small pile of nastiness with a swarm of flies buzzing all around it.

'Ick,' Jack added.

'Oh,' Stone answered. 'That's, um... yeah... That's from after the battle...'

'Oh, yeah!' Jack agreed. 'I remember now. That's where you generously donated your lunch to the great outdoors. Got it.' Looking around, he added, 'But that's all I've found. Lots of your footprints, and no others.'

Stone nodded glumly. 'I guess that's it, huh?'

'For here, yeah. I'd like to have a look at the spring as well.'

'All right.' Stone unslung one of the canteens. 'After we refill these...'

But Jack stopped him. 'And carry all that water to the spring and back? That'll get heavy in a hurry. Check the spring first; refill the canteens when we get back here.'

'Well...' Slowly Stone recorked the canteen and put in back over his shoulder. 'I guess we can do it that way. All right - the spring is further on. I'm not sure how far.'

Jack chuckled. 'Yeah. It's kinda hard to judge distances when you're passing through them running for your life.'

They followed the trail of crashed-through bushes; it wasn't a bit hard to read that! Stone had left a very obvious path through the underbrush that lead all the way back to the spring.

They reached that smaller source of water in about ten minutes. It was refreshing to plunge their hands into it and splash the icy water all over their faces and hair.

'Where were you exactly when you first saw the wolf?' Jack asked.

'Here,' said Stone, pointing.

'Yeah, I see your footprints...' Jack came and stood in that spot, hunkered down as if filling a canteen, glanced up across the spring. 'And the wolf was there?' he pointed.

'Yes.'

Jack stepped across the spring, pointed out the spot where Stone had planted the walking stick for the vault, then took another long stride beyond it. 'Should have been about here then,' he said, looking closer. 'Hmm.'

'See anything?'

Jack pointed again. 'That looks pretty smashed,' he said.

Stone smiled in relief. Yes! There was a depression in the bracken over there that certainly looked as if something heavy had landed in it lately, breaking over stalks and stems.

'So you believe me now?'

Jack glanced at him. 'I never said I didn't believe you,' he said. 'Yeah, it's a bit of a weird story. But, um, that's what this whole journey has been. Weird.'

Coming back to the spring, Jack hunkered down again, splashing more water onto himself. 'Man, but it's getting hot already!' he complained. Plunging his hands in once more, he suddenly froze, hands in the water, face going pale, so pale.

'What's wrong?' said Stone, instantly on the alert.

Jack lifted his hands from the spring, his finger pointed shakily at something right there. 'Where did that come from?' he stammered.

Stone looked closer. The F! It was the letter F scratched onto the rock that he had noticed the day before. 'Oh, yeah,' he said. 'I saw that yesterday. Something else weird, huh?'

Jack turned hollow eyes towards him. 'You don't know what that is?' he asked.

Stone shrugged. 'An F?'

'F, yeah. F for Forest!'

Stone stared at him, shaking his head. 'I don't get it.'

Jack closed his eyes. 'That first full day of the journey. After we had all that row with Forest the first night, and then he woke us up pitching pebbles into the camp. Remember that?'

'Yes.'

'And then he was showing off, showing us where he had spent the night up a tree. And then he showed us a spring of water. You remember that?'

'Yes... Oh!'

Jack was nodding.

'You mean...'

'I mean Forest carved that F on the rock. I saw him do it with my own two eyes. And if we go back that way just a little further...'

Now Stone was nodding. 'Yeah. The entrance to the valley.'

There was something about the way Stone said that, that caused Jack to take a second look at him. 'Stone? You're not surprised about all this?'

'Um... no...'

'You do understand what this means, right? That where we are now - this camp at the base of the cliff - is a day's walk from the start of the valley, and two days from the Mountain of Spices. Months of walking, and we're right back where we started!'

'Um, yeah. I knew that.'

'And you didn't say anything?' Jack's face was red, and his eyes all but popping from their sockets.

'Well, I only found out yesterday myself.'

'How - from finding this spring? No,' he answered himself. 'You didn't know about Forest's mark. So how did you figure it out?'

'I didn't. Starr told me.'

'Starr? Starr knew this?'

Too late, Stone realized that answering that last question had been a bad idea. 'Um... yes...' he said slowly.

'And how long has she known?'

'Um... a while, I guess.'

'And she never said anything? What's up with that?'

'Well, she told me that she, um... forgot.'

Jack closed his eyes. 'Forgot!' he muttered. 'Oy! Well, we gotta go back and tell James about this. Oh, man! and he is not going to be happy!' He covered his face with a hand for a long minute. Then finally said, 'All right. Let's go back. Man!'

And he led the way back, muttering to himself most of the way. He almost forgot to stop at the stream to refill the canteens, he was so upset.

And then when they got back to the camp and he told James - a lot more people got upset.

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