Part 1: Heading Home
Tomas sat back in his chair and savored the last few sips of his hot beachgrape tea, smiling as he savored both the warmth of the drink and its cool, refreshing flavor. It tasted much like the sunset looked, splayed over and upon the freezing lake before him. [If you’ve never tried beachgrape tea hot, you should at least once. It’s not unlike drinking hot chocolate that has been left to cool, but reversed. I don’t personally enjoy it, but taverngoers keep asking for it, even now.] A calm breeze floated off the water, creating ripples that bore small floes of ice to collide with the frozen shelf upon which he sat. The cool air found its way down one of his sleeves; a chill jolted his body, waking him from the lullaby of the ice and waves. His mug now empty, Tomas walked the ten feet back to solid shore while he still had light and climbed the few stone steps to the inn.
“Quite the sunset today, eh, Tom?” Grant stood behind the bar in the tavern, mixing drinks for a few locals celebrating the end of the day.
“One to remember, for sure. Thanks for the tea.” He put the empty mug on the bar and shouldered the pack he had left with Grant, who eyed its bulk suspiciously.
“You gonna be able to lug that all the way home? Kari was in town not two hours ago, in case you were lookin’.”
“I’ll keep my eye out, Grant. Thanks. Have a good night.”
“You too, boy. Keep an eye out on your walk home, too. Can never be too cautious on a warm winter’s night.”
* * *
Tomas’ back was already threatening to ache for the next week when he heard his name called out behind him. Turning, he saw Kari walking toward him, her strong, easy strides quickly closing the distance between them.
A slight smile creeped onto her face as she stopped beside him. “That’s quite the load you’ve got there. You’re not headed home with that, are you?”
“My folks think I am.”
“I’d give you just past the Glacier Peak trailhead. You’d drop the load there and come back for some help.”
“I’d make it at least halfway, thank you.” Tomas was smiling too.
“Well, we’ll never know for sure. Give it here.”
Tomas didn’t say thank you; Kari wouldn’t have accepted it. He knew, though, she could see the relief on his face through the gathering dark.
They walked together through the clear night, watching the moon rise before them. Sometimes they talked about the weather, the other side of the mountains, the wheat harvest, the bottom of the Lake. It was easy conversation; they’d talked about these things their whole lives.
The moon was full that night, and Tomas could easily pick out peaks south of the road–to his right–and farmhouses dotting the rippling, black landscape to his left. He was content, he realized. An evening walk beneath a full moon with his closest friend. A comfortably warm evening, too. It was a rare treat this time of year for it to be this warm without climbing above freezing. [Too many days above freezing and Black Wheat farmers start to sweat. It’s not the heat itself, it’s fear. It doesn’t take much snowmelt before the crops start to go too.]
Kari stopped walking so abruptly Tomas took two more steps before her quiet intensity penetrated his reverie. When he turned to ask why she’d stopped so suddenly, she lifted a finger to her lips, eyes aflame, focused on something past Tomas. She was slowly, quietly removing the pack from her shoulders. His eyes widened, though he didn’t know what had put Kari on edge. Slowly, he turned to follow her gaze and saw nothing.
A light breeze sighed through the silent fields of Black Wheat surrounding them.
The heads of grain to Tomas’ right shivered. He froze.
Knowing its cover was blown, the mountain lion leapt from its cover of darkness, claws and fangs borne to their fullest. Kari was just as fast, though, and somehow got Tomas’ heavy pack between the boy and the cat. It bounced off and snarled at her as it regained its footing. She may well have snarled back as she wrapped her heavy leather coat around her left arm, positioning herself between the lion and Tomas. It leapt again, this time at Kari, who took the pounce squarely, using the leather to protect herself from claws and teeth. The force of the impact knocked her down, but she was ready, and deflected the cat with her knee. It landed hard on its side as she rolled to her feet. Then Kari pounced, using her right hand to pin the cat’s front paws together on the ground and bringing her huge left hand down onto its head. It didn’t do more than daze the animal, but a good, solid hit was enough to convince it to retreat. And retreat it did.
“Why’d I have to be born in the coldest place in the world? It doesn’t even seem warm enough to get cougars this far north.” She rebuttoned her coat and gave a mock shiver, though Tomas knew she was still too on edge to actually be cold.
“What would I do without you?” Tomas smiled in amazement as she reshouldered his pack and started to walk again.
“You can thank me by explaining to my mother why my coat is ripped again. Not sure she’ll believe me on my own.”
“If you’d spend less time in the mountains ripping it on every rock face you see fit to climb, she’d be more likely to believe you.”
The two friends shared a moment of nervous laughter as their pulses returned to normal.
“That’s probably true. I’m too close to give up, though,” Kari said after a moment.
“And once you find the place to put that road, I’ll be your loudest advocate. But maybe you should stop risking your winter clothes. There’s so much time in the summer to just explore.”
“There’s time in the winter, too. No sense wasting it.”
“That, my friend, is a difficult point to argue with. I’ll give it to you tonight.”
Together, they laughed and continued down the road.