Behind the house, beyond a few shade trees, and across the millstream, the mountain rose abruptly from the valley floor. Downstream to the right, eastward toward the main road, an impassable wall rose almost vertically for a hundred yards. Soon the deep streambed turned and joined the mountain wall, like a castle moat, barring the way.
But here the straight course of the mountain broke into great, ragged edges. Here behind the house, Hans crossed back over the millstream on the narrow wooden footbridge and slipped into the tall, dark mass of rhododendrons that hid the only trail up.
Winding between the broken faces of the rock, the secluded path climbed up between the evergreen branches of laurel, rhododendron, and pine. At times they touched him, marking him with the dew, so narrow was the way. Only one at a time could travel this path.
The child had been very small and came much too soon. The labor itself had not been too difficult. That was a week ago now—only a week. It seemed like a month. So much had changed.
In body, Ava was much better, though of course not fully recovered. In heart and mind?
A few days ago, after midnight, Hans found her in the other bedroom, sitting in the dark, rocking back and forth, holding something. She had bundled up the quilt they were going to use for the baby and held it gently to her breast. “I was just saying goodbye,” she had told him as he helped her back to bed.
After the first, short meandering climb through the rocks and roots, the trail had room to spread out on the mountainside into a lop-sided zigzag. Hans knew the way well—the first gentle ascent around to the right, then the sharp turn and steeper hike to the left, then the second gentle ascent to the right again.
It was harder on Ava, of course. The bond between mother and child begins almost immediately. Ava had experienced the child’s brief life directly, he only indirectly. He knew her sense of loss must cut deeper.
If life is a journey, then what of the lives of his two children? Their entire lifetimes spanned only months within Ava’s womb. Normally, this nesting time in the dark would be barely a beginning, unremembered by all but she who bore them—a memory pushed aside by the practical struggles of caring for a newborn, working out new routines, ordering a new family life together. But these two brief journeys had soon—all too soon—taken sharp and sudden turns elsewhere.
During the last few steps, before the trail emptied into the meadow, Hans began looking for Ava’s blonde head through the trees. He expected to find her easily by the gravesite, but it was vacant.
He stopped to listen.
After the damp weight of winter snow, the old leaves told him little. He called out to her.
“Here,” came the answer from the woods to the right, and then he heard her swishing toward him through the forest litter. He strode toward her along the path, wondering what she had been up to.
As they got closer, he knew she could see the rifle barrel over his shoulder. “So what’s going on, Hans?” As always, they spoke German in private.
“Jittery travelers. Gone now,” he called back. “Just going to have a look around.”
And then they embraced. He had noticed a look in her eye that he was happy to see again. She spoke quietly, but earnestly in his ear. “Hans, I want to plant a little flower garden up here, around the graves. It’ll almost take care of itself. I’ll move some daffodils up from the yard, and I know I can get some peonies from Mrs. Smith, the midwife. I’m sure I can find some tiger lilies somewhere.”
“That sounds grand, Maus,” he managed to whisper back through his tightening throat.
She released the hug, grabbed his hands, and looked up into his face. “I want to begin today, to do something today,” she said. “I found a good, large flat stone that I want to use as a seat. I’ve rolled it upside down to get a good look at it, but I knew I shouldn’t try to move it, even roll it further until,” she hesitated, “until I’m stronger. Could you move it for me? Right now. Please, Bärchen.”
Of course, he did, and gladly, helping her get it settled. Then he told her about the caravan. Neither of them expected anything to come of it.
As he hiked toward the top, the dim whiteness moved down to meet him. In the fog and the complete stillness, the woods had that indoor, closed-in feeling.
The deed in the courthouse recorded that he owned all this land. Much of it, he knew well. Some he had never seen. He had walked the ridge trail often enough and knew that the wild things used it as their own—a clear road that avoided the humans, who lived and worked in the cultivated valleys.
He reached the high ground, but could see only the trunks of the nearest trees, the largest hosting mosses and lichens—vivid greens and greys, awakened by the wetness. But he didn’t need to see far. To the left, the land sloped down into Millers Valley. To the right, it fell into the narrow fold of Briar Lick. He need only keep to the ridgetop.
His only choices lay just ahead, where the land fell into a great hollow, shaped much like the bowl of spoon. The ridge trail approached it from the east side and there it divided, left and right—to the right, out toward the bowl’s wide end, and to the left, a slow descent toward the bowl’s narrow neck. Down there it opened into and joined Millers Valley just behind the millpond at Millers Gap. Maps gave that secluded valley no name, but the locals called it Giants Hollow.
He took the left trail and began the descent along the ridge. As he departed the summit, he hoped that he would escape the fog. But that was not to be. He could not see far, and the familiar trail seemed strange to him. He came unexpectedly to the end of the trees—to the rougher, rocky ground near the trail’s end.
Hans knew that beyond the trees, the trail veered to the right, away from the ridgetop, and began a gentle zigzag down into the narrow neck of Giants Hollow. To the left lay an ancient mass of grey rock, broken and weatherworn, rounded slabs and irregular stones.
Emerging from the cover of the trees, the bare path widened enough for two, but Hans kept to the right. On the left edge, a few short, rounded rocks jutted upward into the path, like the topmost towers of a buried castle. Altogether, it was nothing dangerous really, even in this weather, not for the alert and careful.
On the path, only a thin layer of sandy pebbles and hard dirt had been darkened by the falling dampness. Beneath this, the hard ground remained dry. This came as no surprise to Hans. What did surprise him were the regularly-spaced skid marks that exposed the lighter earth beneath. Someone had been running up the path from Giants Hollow—and recently.
He soon found where the runner had tripped, then scanned the terrain for further news. Down and to the left, at the bottom of the formation, on a wide ledge of rock about twenty feet away, a body lay, unmoving. As quickly as he could, Hans worked his way down—eyes on the maze of protruding rocks and deep rifts, selecting each step with care.
It was an Indian, or so he thought at first, since he was dressed in fur and leather, rough moccasins tied around his feet. He lay on his back, one arm at his side, the other across his chest, as if he had been holding shut the fur cloak, his only upper garment.
He was breathing. Dark blood had run from a ragged gash in his forehead. Not enough to be alarming. Mostly thickening now, some had smeared across his head and face. Other injuries: A large, swollen bump on the side of his head. Some scrapes, particularly on the hand and arms. No bones broken.
It appeared he had partly skidded and mostly rolled down over the rock, trying to catch himself in a panic, hit his head twice before stopping here. Then turned on his back, wrapped his cloak around him, and passed out.
Hans unslung his rifle and removed his brown, flannel jacket. This he folded neatly. Carefully lifting the man’s head, he slid the jacket onto the rough, grey rock, and gently laid his head upon it. His dark brown hair was pulled back into a short ponytail, tied with length of dried vine.
Next he used his hunting knife to cut a strip of cloth from the tail of his cotton shirt and wrapped this carefully around the man’s head over the open wound. The man was clearly too warm. Hans didn’t see how this could be related to the fall—not so soon, but he thought it was a bad sign.
He didn’t look like an Indian—his complexion pale, his features heavy and thick, especially the brow. He certainly had no prominent cheekbones. The man was five feet tall at least, yet had no beard whatsoever—perhaps very young, despite his size.
There was something unusual about the face overall. The eyes seemed too large, the features not quite right. But the face was not unpleasant to look upon. Indeed, as he lay there unconscious he had an almost childlike appearance.
Hans stood up and considered his next move. This last slab of rock rose a few feet above the forest floor. Just a few steps away, a trail of sorts, little used, wound around to the bottom. Hard work, but he thought he could carry him that far—to the edge of the wheat field. After that he would need the horse and wagon or something. He would hurry back to the barn first, working out details on the way.
He would want Ava’s help soon, but she might still be at the gravesite. If he returned the way he came, he would pass through the meadow, but even if he ran, that way would probably take longer, and she might not be there, wasting time.
Hans decided to just head down from here to the valley floor. Once he got close enough, he would call out. Wherever she was, she would start towards him. He shouldered his rifle, took one last look at his patient, and started off.
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