Ray was waking up very slowly. His eyes were still closed and he knew things around him didn't quite feel right. His head hurt. Furthermore his head wasn't on his own soft pillow, one of the oversized ones his mother had brought from the old country. It seemed his cheek was against some rough fabric and beneath the fabric were hard lumps. He moaned slightly and shifted. The pain in his head didn't change at all, so it must be from something other than what he was lying on.
He expanded his awareness. He was lying on his side in a semi-fetal position and his front was very warm. No, not warm, hot. And his back was cold. He cracked his eyes open. A couple of feet from his face there was a fire. His head was on a backpack. Canvas. Around him was a blanket, threadbare and dirty. Underneath him were dirt, leaves, and sparse bits of grass. He was out-of-doors.
Stray thoughts penetrated the grogginess. Forest. Plane crash. Fraser was hurt. Eating grubs. Running and shooting. Fraser was better. Floating down a river. His thoughts clarified. They'd found their man, killed him and then made their escape in a raft. They'd gone over the falls and Fraser was hurt yet again. On a riverbank he, Ray, had made a fire. That was the last thing he remembered.
I must have fallen asleep, Ray thought. Damn, I should have stayed awake and watched over Benny. Benny. Where was Benny? Ray's eyes focused a little better now and he could see his Mountie friend sitting cross-legged on the other side of the fire, with Diefenbaker lounging beside. Benny looked perfectly well. Thank God.
Again Ray shifted. This time, Fraser noticed it, rose and took a few steps around the fire to bring himself beside Ray, crouching on the ground beside his friend.
"Easy, Ray. Just take it easy," Fraser was saying, "Let's see if you can sit up." Fraser took hold of Ray's shoulders and eased him into a sitting position. "Lean back against this rock, Ray. That's good."
Fraser was examining him now. His friend's gentle hands eased each of his eyes open one by one and peered into them. He felt his pulse. Then he reached for Ray's head and loosened a bandage that was wrapped around Ray's brow.
Bandage? Fraser should be wearing the bandage. He hit his head. Twice. Once when the plane went down and once more when we went over the falls. Something's not right here. Ray twitched.
"Hold still, Ray. Let me look at this. You can't be too careful. Head wounds are often more serious than they look."
Ray held still and let Fraser open the bandage, examine the wound and then rewind the cloth around him again, tying a new knot at Ray's temple. That's why my head hurts, then. This doesn't make sense. Benny hit his head, not me. So why am I wearing the bandage?
Now Fraser's face was in front of his again. "Can you see me, Ray?"
Ray nodded. Of course he could see. It was Fraser that had been blind and then got his sight back.
"Clearly, or blurred."
"Clearly. I see you fine."
Again Fraser nodded. "No blurred vision, Dief," Fraser said, although still looking at Ray. The wolf grunted in satisfaction at this news and stood up.
Now Ray felt much steadier inside. He took in the whole scene: the forest, with the sun slanting in through the trees, the fire, his two friends standing looking at him, the scent of two kinds of burning: their little fire and the stronger reek of burning rubber. Then, a third smell. Meat. Cooking meat.
Burning rubber? From the wrecked plane? But they were miles and miles from the crash site! Where was the riverbank? Where was the sound of the waterfall? And their fire looked different than when he last saw it. There was a makeshift tripod of green branches lashed together and a rough looking pot hanging on it over the fire. That must be where the meat smell was coming from.
"Where'd we get a pot?" He hadn't really meant to say that aloud, but everything seemed so strange that this question made as much (or as little) sense as any other.
Fraser smiled. "I pounded a piece of the wreckage into the shape of a pot, using a rock. Could you eat something? Do you feel nauseous?"
Ray felt confused and his head still hurt but his stomach seemed okay, and he said so to Fraser.
"No nausea either, Dief. That's a good sign," Fraser observed to the wolf. Then to Ray he said, "Let's start with some broth. If that stays down okay you can have a little of the meat and tubers after." From a jumble of things beside him, Fraser took a thermos bottle and unscrewed the cup on the top. He dipped the cup into the pot on the fire and brought the broth over to Ray.
"We were eating grubs," Ray recalled, while reaching for the cup.
"Grubs?" Fraser chuckled. "If I were in dire straits and couldn't find any other food, I guess I'd eat grubs. But there's plenty of game in the forest and I found some edible roots nearby. Fortunately we're not far from a stream, so we've got water."
"With a little ingenuity and the knowledge of how to go about it, a man can live like a king in the woods," Ray repeated, remembering what Fraser had said before making him eat a bowlful of grubs.
Again the Mountie laughed gently. "Maybe not like a king, but we'll make do until a rescue plane arrives."
Ray sipped at the soup. It whetted his appetite and he
gulped the rest down, and then held out the cup.
"You don't feel ill?" Fraser asked, cautiously.
"No Fraser, I'm good. And I'm hungry."
Fraser scooped out meat and roots this time with just enough broth to keep it all warm and wet and handed it back to Ray. "Eat slowly, Ray. You've been out for two days. I don't want you to overdo it."
Out for two days? Nothing was making any sense, Ray thought as he picked the meat out of the cup with his fingers. "You said the search planes won't find us under all these trees, remember?" Ray said, around a mouthful of whatever meat was in his cup.
"You must have been dreaming, Ray. I said no such thing. Look at the gash in those trees where we crashed. That's just the kind of thing the search plane would be looking for. I expect it will take a few more days for them to find us, maybe a week. Search planes fly in a grid pattern so it takes them some time. We'll have to just sit tight and wait."
Ray sat and ate in silence for a while. Hadn't they gone after "their man"? Hadn't Fraser been blind, lame and out-of-his mind? Hadn't he seen Pop and talked to him? Here was Fraser saying he had been "out" for two days. He was almost afraid to ask for clarification.
"Fraser, I'm feeling kind of confused here," Ray began, while licking his fingers between bites.
"Understandable. You suffered quite a blow to the head in the crash."
"So, we did crash? The pilot bailed out and you couldn't land the plane and we crashed."
Fraser looked hurt. "I've never trained as a pilot, Ray. I can't do EVERYTHING."
"No, Fraser, I'm not criticizing, I just want to get this all straight. We crashed. And then?"
"We were all three of us unconscious, but I can't tell for how long. Diefenbaker woke up first, he's got some cuts but that's all. He woke me up. I wasn’t hurt, fortunately, so I could take care of you."
"You've been unconscious for two days. I kept you as warm as I could. Dief stayed with you while I went to hunt for some food, got wood and water, otherwise we've both been watching over you, waiting for you to wake up. Your pulse and heart-rate have been steady so I was hopeful you'd be okay once you regained consciousness."
Ray was finished the meat and dug his fingers into the cup to get at the vegetables. "Is there more of this, this . . .?"
"Venison. There's plenty. It's a little bland, I'm afraid. I didn't want to spend too much time away from you looking for herbs to season it."
"You hunted this? I thought you don't hunt."
Fraser looked thoughtful. "Only once did I ever go hunting for sport. I was twelve years old. I never did it again. But hunting for food is different. There isn't always a supermarket in the wild. How's your head, does it hurt?"
"Yeah. A little."
Fraser regarded him with lifted eyebrows, "A little?"
"Who'm I trying to kid? Okay. It hurts like hell."
"I thought it might," Fraser said. "There's some Tylenol in the first aid kit, but I boiled you some willow bark tea. It'll be easier on your stomach. Hang on."
With this, Fraser rummaged again through the pile of objects beside him and took up a small plastic bottle. "Here drink this. Never mind how it tastes."
Ray took it and downed it. "It tastes like a tree," he observed. "I'm drinking a tree. It's not all that bad, actually."
"I'll turn you into an outdoorsman yet, Ray. If you really want some grubs for dessert, I think I hear a nest of furry night crawlers."
"Thanks, but I'll pass." Ray paused and summoned his strength. "I guess we should go after that pilot.”
Fraser looked sheepish. "Go get our man, eh? I guess we should. I hate to let a criminal get away like that, but there was no help for it. He'll have too much of a head start on us now. And anyway, I don't want to risk your health. We stay here."
What? Where was the obsessed Mountie? "I can't believe you're saying this, Fraser!"
Sheepishness gave way to outright embarrassment. “Ray, I . . .” Fraser cleared his throat and looked away from Ray, into the fire. “Even if you were completely well, I . . .” The Mountie was having real trouble now, Ray could see. “I hate to admit this, but, I’m only a week out of the hospital. I was planning to rebuild the cabin slowly, not tire myself too much, you know.”
Ray was fascinated.
“I just . . . I don’t think I could handle a long trek in the woods. You’d end up having me to carry me on your back before long, I don’t doubt. I feel terrible.”
Poor Fraser. But at least he wasn’t out of his mind after all. So maybe he never even lost his sight.
“And you didn't go blind, did you?” Ray wanted this verified.
A tear came to Fraser’s eye. Ray felt sorry right away.
“I’m not blind to my duty. I know what it is. Go get my man. And the irony is - that’s not even the RCMP motto. It’s ‘maintain the right’. Ray, in this case the right thing is to stay put and keep ourselves safe to fight another day. It seems selfish, but, we’re in no condition to be heroes right now, either of us.”
“No, Fraser, I don’t mean that. I mean literally go blind. You didn’t.”
Fraser blushed. “I didn't have much to do while sitting watching you, Ray, but I wouldn't do anything improper in front of Diefenbaker.”
Ray sat musing a little longer. It never happened, none of it. He must have been dreaming. “So, we wait here for the rescue plane?”
“Yes, we wait. It’s only a matter of time. We can have a little camping vacation instead of a building vacation. Not what we planned, but as long as you're okay there's no reason we can't enjoy ourselves a little.”
“Great, so no matter where I go we still don't have indoor plumbing.”
“You wouldn't have had it in the cabin anyway, Ray.”
“Sure I would. I ordered you that toilet, we had it shipped out and we were going to pick it up at the airport. Remember?”
Fraser sighed. “I didn't want to tell you, Ray, but I called and cancelled the order. There's no sewage system to attach the toilet to up there. It wouldn't have made sense to bring it.”
“Oh.” Ray let it all sink in for a few moments, and then asked for another cup of stew.