Sword Called Kitten Serial

Gordon A. Long

Published by

Airborn Press


   Home      Issue #16 Canyon Climb
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EPISODE 16

Canyon Climb

 

Trapper stood on the rim of rock, staring down into the canyon below. It was the first good look the Sword had got of their path, and it didn’t look good. The canyon was a long bowshot across and almost as deep, with a ribbon of white wiggling down along the bottom. Dark areas showed where the water was nearer the surface of the snow that covered it. The trail wound down the steep bank, clinging to trees to hold itself in place. Just where it twisted out of sight it crossed a rockslide, disappearing in the jumble to appear as a solid path of untrodden snow on the other side.

The man ruffled the dog’s back hair. “Well, Ruffian, my friend, this is it. This separates the minks from the martens, those who can play the game from those who have to sit and watch.”

The dog, picking up on his master’s uneasiness, whined and pressed closer, causing the Trapper to lose his balance. He cursed and fumbled his crutches into a more secure position.

The dog cringed away.

“No worries, my lad. Just clumsy old me. Soon we’ll chop these sticks up and I’ll throw them for you to chase. Won’t that be fun? Huh? Chase a stick?”

The dog’s ears perked, and his paws began to dance.

“There you go. That’s better. Well, let’s get going. You head out. I don’t want you behind me in case you slip.”

The dog responded to his hand signal, moving out to the cliff edge. He looked down the steepening trail and whined again.

“That’s right. Over you go. I’m right behind you.”

The Cat decided that her promise did not extend to anyone but the Trapper. Go on, dog. If he can do this, you can. You’ve still got four paws.

His ears pulled back and his tail tucked under, Ruffie gave a worried look over his shoulder, the whites of his eyes showing. However, his master reaffirmed the signal, so the dog started down.

The Trapper edged down the trail, stopping after only a few steps to tow his canvas-wrapped bundle of supplies down to him. Then he went on.

The Cat said nothing. As long as he’s managing, he doesn’t need me. Though why he’s got that big weight behind him on this steep trail, I don’t know. He could just as easily push it ahead and follow it.

Sure enough, the third time the Trapper pulled on the tow rope, the bundle started sliding on its own, running into his leg – fortunately the good one – before it stopped. He swayed for a moment, got one of his crutches in place, then stood, breathing heavily.

“Well, that was a close one, Ruffie my boy. Gotta brace myself more. On we go, now.”

Not that we’re in a hurry or anything, but wouldn’t it be better… no, I’m saying nothing. He dug himself into this hole, and if he’s determined to dig it deeper and pull the sides in over him, who am I, a mere Magic Sword, to complain? After all, what do I know about winter in the mountains? Maybe this sort of adventure is normal.

And maybe my mother was a milk cow.

Come on, Trapper, be careful. Watch it! If you insist on sticking your crutches into every hole and crevice in the trail, you’re going to break them off, and then where will you be? Right here, that’s where you’ll be. Until spring, when your bones get washed away by the flooding creek. But you’re not listening, so I’m not talking to you.

Well, didn’t I tell you? With the trail this steep, if you keep dragging that bundle after you, sooner or later it’s going to go off the trail. You’re lucky you didn’t end up at the bottom the quick way.

As the pack slipped over the edge, the Trapper had thrown his weight onto the other side of a small tree, which stopped the bundle from dragging him off the trail. Muttering curses, he laboriously hauled the load back up to the trail. Then he sat on it, mopping his brow.

“Well, Ruffie, I think we need a re-think, here. Seems to me that ol’ bundle just wants to get to the bottom quicker’n us.”

 And pushing on the rope isn’t much of a method of stopping it. Oh, my. I wonder if there isn’t another way? But who am I to suggest it? What do Swords know about ropes? Except how to cut them.

“Yessir, Ruffie, I think the trail’s steep enough here, we can push the bundle ahead and lower it down, then slide along behind it. Away you go, now, and we’ll be right along after.”

“Hey, this is working fine, Ruffie. There’s a nice, long, straight stretch, here. Watch out, here we come!”

Oh, no. Now he’s playing toboggans.

The man started the bundle moving, then sat down, lifted his feet, and started sliding down behind it, using his crutches to steer. Soon both were moving at a decent clip. “Whee! This is working fine…”

Until you bang your sore leg on a…Ouch! I could feel that one.

The Trapper sat for a long while, his face wrinkled in pain, Ruffie nuzzling him anxiously. Slowly his breathing calmed, and he rubbed a mitt over the dog’s back. “That’s all right, pup. I was just havin’ a bit too much fun. Look, we’re almost at the bottom already. Goin’ up the other side won’t be so much fun, but it won’t be so dangerous, either.”

The Cat sighed and moved her perceptions into the man’s body. No real damage done, in any case. More luck than good management, I’d say. She focused on the healing process, helping the blood to flow, feeding energy to the cells, dampening the pain just enough that he could function, not so much that he would do himself injury.

She was startled by a lurch and a yell. The man’s left crutch had gone through a hole into black water, and he fell heavily, the ice cracking under him. He scrambled frantically to his feet and stood, watching the water darken the snow in all directions.

After a long, tense moment, the crackling stopped, and the water rose no further. He reached out with his crutches one at a time, testing the ice by tapping before he trusted his weight to each new position.

“Whew! That was a close one. With all this snow, I didn’t even realize I was out on the ice already. Guess I better be careful.”

He calls that careful? He’s walking on thin ice, and he doesn’t even notice? What’s wrong with the man? She watched him move for a few more teetering steps. What is wrong with the man? She moved farther into his thoughts, trying to feel what he felt.

Oh. He really doesn’t know. But I do. I can tell every time he puts his crutch down. I wonder why?

As the man moved ahead, she watched herself, trying to understand what she was doing. I see. I’m reading the vibrations through the crutch, just like it was a… I get it. Just like it was a sword! Of course! I am trained to read the vibrations of the enemy’s sword. I can tell if it is flawed. So I can use that skill to tell when the ground is hollow beneath the crutch. Well, that really helps.

At least it would if he would let me help. Which he won’t.

She focused on the crutches now, every sense aware of the vibrations sent up by the ice beneath. Soon she began to distinguish when there was running water, when there was air space. I can also tell when the ice is getting…WATCH OUT!

The man pulled his crutch back and stood, panting in fear. Then the fear was replaced by anger. “WILL YOU GET OUT OF MY BRAIN!”

I’m sorry, I know I said I would leave you alone, but you were about to trust your weight to some very thin ice, and the water is very deep here.”

The Trapper’s breath quickened. “I don’t care. Get out of my brain and leave me alone.”

You expect me to watch you walk into danger, and just let it happen?

“I expect you to leave me alone. I was doing just fine in my life before you came along, and I’m doing just fine without you, now.”

You call this “just fine?” By the Hammer of the Smith, I cannot believe this! You mean you’d rather kill yourself from your own stupidity than have me save you?”

“That’s right. I’ve lived my whole life without being beholden to any man, and I’m not about to change that now in favour of some worm that’s wiggled itself into my brain. Now GO AWAY!”

The Sword withdrew, removing every tendril of her presence from his mind that she could. As long as I keep monitoring his leg. He doesn’t need to know about that.

The man edged his way off the ice, collapsing onto a log that stuck out of the snow on the far bank of the creek . He sat there a long while, then looked around. “Well, Ruffie, I think that’s enough for the morning. We’ll have a quick bite before we tackle that climb. Up to the top, and it’s an easy stroll to the cabin.” He thought a moment. “Which means a three-hour slog. But we’ll make it. Somehow, we’ll make it. We always did before, and we’ll do it again. Without any help, ‘cause that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

 I don’t suppose he’d consider stashing the bundle somewhere along the trail, here. There’s nothing in it that he needs right now, and he could always come back for it when he’s well enough to go trapping. But no, that would be too logical. He’ll just forge ahead and kill himself and then where will I be? Hoping that this is a rich enough trapline that someone else will be checking it out if he doesn’t show up in a couple of years or twelve. What fun. Should have stuck it out with that mercenary. If he wasn’t dead.

Yep, I sure am on the path to Honour and Glory and a Name for myself. My luck gets any worse, and my Name’s going to be Rusty.

Wonderful. Just wonderful.

It was a long, weary afternoon. The Trapper slogged at his halting snail’s pace up the twisting path, trailing his bundle behind him like a guilty memory. As the time passed, the man seemed to gain peace. He worked slowly and methodically, careful with his pace, his fatigue and his injury.

The Sword, monitoring his emotions, came to a strange realization.  He’s happy. By the Anvil, the idiot is grinding his way up a cliff, knee-deep in the snow with a broken leg, and he’s happy.

Humans!

They broke over the lip of the canyon in the middle of the afternoon. The trees stretched out in front of them: a flat pine forest on flat ground with widely-spaced trees and little undergrowth.

The man’s spirits rose even further. “Well, we nailed that one, Ruffie my friend. It’s all level from here on. Can you smell the oats in the stable? Figuratively speakin’ of course. I tell you, I can smell the meat in that cache all right. It’s gonna be stew for supper, my lad.”

The Cat did not comment. It seemed a shame to spoil is good mood. The fact that the wolverine hasn’t appeared could be taken as a good sign, I suppose. If it isn’t sitting snug in our cabin, waiting for us. Oh, well, let’s look on the bright side. He’s making good progress.

As the short winter day closed down, the Trapper’s growing fatigue was countered by his eagerness to finish his ordeal. He pushed ahead, and the Sword was forced to feed him energy faster than she would have liked.  

Finally they came around a small hillock and there, nestled in front of a grove of huge spruce trees, was a small, low cabin. It had long, overhanging eaves, the walls underneath hidden by stacked firewood. The roof had been built longer front to make a porch as long as a man’s outstretched arms.

The Trapper stumbled ahead rapidly, towing his bundle without stopping. He staggered onto the porch, turned to haul the load up beside him and dropped onto the bench that was tucked against the wall by the door. The dog jumped up on him, licking his face, and he laughed. “We did it, Ruffie. We made it here. C’mon, let’s see how she looks inside.”

The door was undamaged, and he slid the handle to the side and opened it. A rush of stale, cold air greeted them, and they pressed in against it.

It was a tiny room. There was space for a bed on one side, a table on the other, and a stone fireplace across the end wall. Small four-paned windows in each side wall showed cracks of light through the sturdy shutters that covered them. The Trapper knelt at the fireplace, where the makings of a fire were already in place. A simple strike of his steel sent a spark flying into the tinder. He blew gently and a wisp of smoke drifted up.

Soon he was feeding kindling to the flames, and the room began to glow. He rose, shrugged off his outer coat and turned around.

“Looks pretty tidy, don’t it, Ruffian? No wolverines in here.” He slapped a log in the wall. “I built this one to last. Not even a grizzly could get in here.”

He picked up his crutches and hobbled out the door, turning to take a shovel from where it hung on pegs in the wall. “Let’s see about that cache.”

Just as the Cat had seen in his mind, there was a box made of planks slung higher than a man could reach between two nearby trees. A ladder lay along the top of the nearest woodpile under the eaves, clear of snow. The Trapper soon discovered how to lean on his crutches and use the shovel, and made his way towards the cache.

However, when he reached the foot of the trees he stopped. There was a long silence, then a soft curse. Long, vertical scratches scored the trunks of both trees, reaching up almost as high as the man’s head. The snow at the foot of the cache was trampled and tossed around, revealing a few footprints the size of a normal dog’s. A foul smell permeated the area.

The man’s head came up and he searched the surrounding woods. The dog tested the wind, whining. The Cat, from her place on the bunk where her Hand had tossed her, spread her senses into the forest but found nothing.

The Trapper shrugged. “Well, he’s gone, and he didn’t get up those trees, so I guess we just have to do him one better.  Now, how am I going to get up there?”

Just as he had done with the shovel, the man experimented with climbing the ladder. With a great deal of trouble, cursing and sweat, he finally made it, holding on with precarious balance while he reached into the cache.

He withdrew a heavily-wrapped package, his face beaming in triumph. “It’s here, Ruffie. We’ve got stew tonight!”

He closed the box, latched it securely again and turned to start down. Only to discover that, burdened as he was, descending was more difficult than climbing. With a shrug, he dropped the meat and made his way down.

“Ruffie, you stay out of that, now!” the command was firm, and the dog wrinkled his forehead but moved back, nose straining towards the inviting smell. “You’ll get your share later. And there’s more where that came from”

The winter twilight descended, and the Trapper worked his magic. With a proper fireplace and utensils, it was not long before he had a fragrant stew simmering. At least, it seemed so to him.

I think that jerky smells a bit rank, but I suppose it won’t kill him. Pathetic really, but I suppose he has a right to celebrate.

After he had eaten, the Trapper sat on the bed, satisfaction and fatigue slackening his every muscle. He regarded the leg stretched out in front of him, its bandaging torn and wet.

“You know, I’m getting really tired of that thing. I wonder if my leg wouldn’t be better off without it.”

I doubt it, but who am I to say?

“Yes, I’d really like to bathe that leg. And scratch it, to be honest. I’m safe here in my cabin. I have something to hold onto in all directions. Yes, I think I’m going to indulge myself.”

Rising from the bed, he limped outside to gather snow in a large copper basin, which he placed next to the fire. Soon the snow began to melt down, and he added several more pot-fulls. Feeling the water to make sure it was warm, he began to untie the bandages. When the leg was exposed, it didn’t look pretty.

“Hmm. Bruising’s getting better. Swelled up a bit, but not too bad. Yes, I think I’m healing.” His attempt to rotate his ankle was restricted by a stab of pain. “Real quick, too. Must be the fresh air and exercise.”

And a bit of magic from your Sword, but he wouldn’t want to admit that, would he?

The Trapper bathed his leg, then stripped and ran a wet cloth over the rest of his body, shivering until he dried off in front of the fire. Then he ever-so-gently shifted his leg onto the bed and lay down, covering himself with warm blankets. He lay back, staring at the ceiling in the flickering light. A deep sigh shuddered out of his body, and then he slept.

The Cat regarded her sleeping Hand. I seem to recall promising to disappear until he was safe in his cabin. Well, here we are…

… no, not yet. He’s just too pleased with himself. Time enough in the morning. Let him have one night of peace before he deals with his problems.

The fire burned low and the wind rose and blew snow against the windowpanes, but inside the cabin, the man and dog slept peacefully. The Sword stayed on guard.

Those weren’t kitty tracks out there.

 

 

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