“Easy, Charlie. Nice and easy,” Charlotte mumbled to herself while carefully holding her brake hand down parallel to her body and rappelling down the rock face. “Slow and steady gets to the bottom of the mountain alive.”
On a steep climb, concentration and finesse were key; one slip and she’d be done for. She slowly let out some slack in her lines and lowered herself the last fifteen feet to the dense forest floor. She smiled as she touched down and unhooked herself from first her harness, then her helmet. Shaking her head to clear her warm brown hair from her eyes, she looked around her in deep satisfaction.
It was a beautiful day for a hike and climb. The sun was bright and hot as it poked its face out from behind fluffy white clouds, promising a gorgeous day amid the oaks, maples, birches and pines in the wilderness of Johns Creek, New York. A mild wind cooled her warm flesh, setting off goose-bumps as it dried the sweat on her skin.
The outdoors had always captivated Charlotte Hastings. There was such freedom to be found here, deep in the Adirondack Mountains, with only the birds, bees and the occasional bear or bobcat to keep her company. Conspicuously absent was noise from the big cities; there were no horns honking and music blasting, no people yelling or machinery whirring. There was only the babbling of a nearby brook and the call of the songbirds that flew gracefully overhead. The pervasive smell of city smog was absent here; instead, the air smelled of phlox, wild roses and mountain laurel. The fragrant wind blew gently through the trees, making a rustling sound as it kissed the leaves. Sunlight shone down through each break in the foliage, making the entire forest floor glow with golden beams of light.
When life got to be too much to handle, she’d retreat here, back to the countryside she’d grown up in, where she felt the weight of the world lift off her shoulders like a laden rucksack. She’d needed this day, badly. There had been so many changes in her life over the past few weeks, and strong as she was, she had to take time to clear her mind.
Her cell phone rang, shattering the stillness of the forest and the peace that had been creeping into her soul to settle her, and she hit the ‘ignore’ button to silence it immediately. She knew who it was even before looking at the screen.
It was as if the wind had whispered his name, reminding her of all that was, and all that would never be. His image brought chills that shimmered through her body and she shuddered, but he was long gone; that chapter of her life was finished.
She leaned back against the rock wall she’d just rappelled down and closed her eyes, listening to the sound of the chickadees chirping, willing herself to forget her almost-fiancé. It did her no good to think about him, about what could have been, what would have been if she hadn’t left him. She was annoyed that he’d called. After all, she’d come to the woods to soothe her mind, not dredge up the painful past. Hadn’t she told him, time and time again, that it was over? So why did he keep calling, intruding upon her solitude?
Another unwelcome interruption, this time in the form of a low rumble of thunder, caused her to open her eyes and look around, startled. A storm? But the forecast hadn’t called for rain. She looked up and sighed, shading her hazel eyes from the rays of the sun as she studied the sky. It looked ok, but there was an odd feel to the air now, a heaviness that seemed charged with electricity. She knew what that meant; rain was imminent.
She fished her cell phone out of her pocket again and grinned ruefully as a belated severe weather alert flashed across the screen. Typical. Upstate New York weather was subject to change without notice, and it appeared Mother Nature had exercised her right to be a fickle bitch. The National Weather Service had been taken by surprise yet again.
Charlotte had been trained in orienteering by one of the best teachers in the world: the U.S. Army. She considered herself a skilled survivalist, capable of making a shelter, foraging for food, reading the signs nature gave her. Had she not been so preoccupied by her thoughts of Nathan, she would have noticed the darkening sky, the gusty winds, the forest floor that had come alive with creatures sounding warnings.
But it was too late now to do much about the approaching storm. As experienced as she was, there was no way she could deftly navigate up a sheer cliff that had been soaked by rainwater and backlit by lightning. Thunderstorms and flash flood conditions had caused more than one rock climbing death. She didn’t want to add another casualty to the tally. It was time to move, and time to move now, if she wanted a fighting chance at making it to the top without incident.
She donned her helmet and clipped her ropes to her harness as heavy storm clouds converged, like a ghostly cavalry planning its attack upon the forest’s army of flora and fauna. The sky dimmed rapidly, the clouds blowing across the sky faster than she could outclimb them.
Great. She’d be soaked to the skin before she made it back to her Jeep.
This rock face was one she’d climbed a dozen times. It was nearly vertical, and it required all of her concentration and skill. She liked it because it forced everything but base survival from her mind, and she always felt cleansed and rested when she emerged, victorious, at the top. She’d already set her anchor point, from which she’d rappelled down earlier, so after a quick rigging inspection, she started top-rope climbing as the first fat droplets of rain pelted her.
She was drenched by the time she’d ascended to fifteen feet and it was hard to keep a firm hold on her rigging. She’d opted not to bring her belay gloves today, which didn’t help the situation any. She fought to stay upright on the wall, her well-toned muscles burning from the exertion of battling the wind and rain. She cursed as one hand slipped and she was flung against an arête in the rock face. She hit the wall hard with her right side and bounced off the rock face. The breath whooshed out of her body and her right arm stung. Undoubtedly she’d find it scraped raw from her tangle with nature.
She paused for a moment to get her breath back and assess the situation. It didn’t look good. “Well, this sucks,” she said, dangling in mid-air. Before she admitted defeat, she gamely gave it one more try. She put one foot on the rock and tried to gain traction, but the water streaming ceaselessly down the sheer rock wall made it impossible. Her foot slipped again and she was once again flung into the rock face.
Just then, lightning shot through the darkening sky and thunder crashed immediately behind it, indicating it had touched down close by.
“That does it. It’s just too slippery, and here I am, up here like a lightning rod. Time to come up with a different plan.” She rappelled back down the rock face and stood under a dense tree while she considered her plight. The rock face was about fifty feet tall, and the trail she’d hiked to get there was four miles long. If she forewent the wall altogether, she’d add another mile to her hike, since the wall she was climbing was actually the base of Johns Hill, a relatively low-lying mountain, long and large enough to cost her some time. With the lightning slicing through the air, she’d stand a slightly better chance down among the trees. She’d have to stay on the ground and hike to the trailhead. It didn’t mean it would be easier, though. The terrain at the base of the mountain was rocky, uneven and a challenge in and of itself. The dead pine needles that littered the forest floor were slick. The little springs and creek beds that snaked along the base of the mountain would soon be swollen with water from the storm, and when the trail grew muddy, slips and falls were a real concern. And if the mud didn’t do the trick, tangled tree roots were ready to catch unsuspecting hikers by the ankles and throw them to the ground.
Another bolt of lightning darted across the quickly-darkening sky and she heard a sharp crack as it found its target in the nearby woods. One of the worst places she could be was under a tree when gale-force winds and lightning pummeled the Great Outdoors. She yelped when a particularly vicious gust of wind knocked a heavy tree branch to the ground, feet from where she was standing.
The rain was torrential, and the wind howled like a beast. It didn’t seem to be letting up either. Visibility was nil. Soaked through, she pushed her sodden hair out of her eyes and shrugged. “Well, there’s no way I’m getting back to my Jeep right now. I’d best seek shelter here for a while and wait out the rain.”
This part of Johns Creek, nestled within the Adirondacks, was popular with serious hike-in campers who preferred total seclusion to a more congested public campsite. Small cabins were scattered here and there throughout the acreage. Some were home to mountain men, some were used as outposts for game wardens and park rangers, and others stood empty, free to be used by any weary traveler who needed a rest. If she remembered correctly, there was such a cabin deep in the woods a few miles from here, built in the late 1800s by a mill hand who’d worked at Johns Creek’s famous old wheat mill, and renovated in the 1930s as an overseer’s cabin by the Civilian Conservation Corps, President Roosevelt’s public works program that hired young men to preserve the natural beauty of the area and conserve natural resources while giving them a way out of the throes of the Great Depression.
She picked up her pack and rifled through it, taking stock of what she had packed for emergencies. It contained a basic first aid kit, some flares, a few 2,000 calorie ration bars, a spare canteen filled with water, a magnesium fire starter and some waterproof matches. It did not, however, contain an umbrella, which would have been most useful at the moment. She cursed herself for not being more prepared, and slinging her pack onto her back, she started out, heading west toward the rapidly setting sun.
Wind-driven rain slapped at her body, pummeling her ceaselessly, blowing her drenched hair into her face and obscuring her vision. She pushed it back, tucking the sodden strands behind her ears. It didn’t help much; water streamed down her face and got in her eyes, distorting the appearance of the woods around her. She didn’t have anything on her that was dry enough to wipe her eyes clear, so she blinked rapidly and kept her head down so she could concentrate on hiking.
The path she followed, more a worn game trail than anything else, was full of loose rocks and exposed tree roots. They were slick underfoot, despite the tread on her hiking boots and she stumbled a few times. To further complicate matters, she couldn’t see much other than what was in front of her. It was growing darker by the minute, more difficult to see where she was going. It was also harder to see the landmarks she’d normally use to find the cabin.
Without the sun shining down through the trees, the forest floor was eerie. What had been dead tree trunks in the daytime were now shapeless dark blobs that lurked in the woods, perfect for the Big Bad Wolf to hide behind. Or maybe that big one over there was the Big Bad Wolf, crouching down and ready to pounce. The rustle of the leaves took on an ominous tone, and she walked as fast as she dared, trying mightily not to slip and fall on the slippery terrain, but not willing to linger in the dark forest for much longer. The creatures of the woods would undoubtedly be hunkered down now, hiding from the storm, but she didn’t want to risk surprising a wet, cranky bear or a sharp-antlered buck.
As she made her way toward the cabin by the flashes of lightning, she grinned at the little birds she’d spotted who’d found sanctuary inside one set of thick shrubs. They perched inside the dense foliage to ride out the storm. They looked dry and cozy, and very sweet with their heads tucked under their wings.
“Soon you’ll be in the air, riding the wind again,” she told them as she passed by. A sleepy-looking finch lifted his head and chirped at her once, quietly, before tucking his head back under his wing and resuming his nap.
She continued along the trail, swearing softly as she slipped and slid along the path, almost skating down a slick decline and struggling up the next soft, muddy knoll. Up and down she went, riding the peaks and valleys of the trail like a boat on choppy waves. It seemed to take forever, but finally the outline of the cabin was visible in front of her.
Lightning lanced the sky close nearby and she yelped again, startled by the flash of light that turned the sky into a dazzling display of Mother Nature’s prowess. Thunder answered lightning’s call and crashed around her. This was getting worse and worse, and she breathed a sigh of relief when she arrived at the cabin door.
One hard shove pushed in the heavy oak door and she grinned when she entered the little sanctuary and left the storm outside. She felt better immediately, now that she was out of the elements. She allowed her pack to slide off her weary shoulders and onto the wooden floor. It landed with a solid clunk.
The first order of business was to call for help. She dug her cell out of her pocket and groaned. Unless the cabin came equipped with a phone, calling for assistance was going to be impossible. Her phone was waterlogged, the screen as dark as the sky outside.
“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” she muttered to herself. “You’re supposed to be a survivalist and the first thing you do is forget to put your cell phone in a waterproof bag?”
She sighed and shrugged her shoulders. New first order of business? Lighting a fire. At night in the woods, exposure was a real fear and she was soaked through. The temperature could fluctuate wildly and she needed to stay warm to prevent hypothermia. Fortunately, there was a basket of dry logs next to the fireplace. She dug the waterproof matches out of her day pack and got to work.
Soon a cheerful little fire was blazing and the small popping and hissing noises the fire made as it licked at the logs were a comfort to Charlotte. She’d taken her wet things off and spread them on the floor before the fire to dry. Despite being dressed only in a cami, sports bra and boy shorts, she felt snug and safe; outside the rain was still pouring down, making a steady drumming noise on the roof of the cabin, but inside she was dry and warm and getting very sleepy.
She’d just turned from the fire to stretch out on the futon across the room when she heard the creak of hinges. As she whirled around to look, the cabin door opened.