Chapter 1: Lost & Found
8:52 PM MST
I’m completely lost.
After several hours wandering the never-ending depths of this untamed forest alone, I’ve finally admitted it to myself; just in time for the sun to set and leave me in twilight darkness with nothing but a wristwatch and a wallet.
How did it get this way, you ask? A combination of events, actually. You could pinpoint it to the moment five years ago, my thirteenth birthday, when I received my first set of mountain climbing gear for Christmas from my brother Daxton. Or, you could argue it all started to go wrong when last week Dax suggested we climb three summits over spring break; the infamous Three Sisters. Perhaps things went south when my brother – six years my senior – took our GPS, LifeStraw, food and bear spray, then simultaneously disappeared from camp after telling me he’d be back with some water.
Here’s the reality of the situation. I’m in the remote wilderness of the Canadian Rockies. Just on the other side of these peaks lay civilization, but there’s no way – without all of my gear and my brother’s instruction – that I can even attempt to climb back over the other way.
A few hours ago I took it upon myself to wander the area in search of the nearest water source in an effort to find Dax. However, this decision seems to have been the biggest mistake of all since he’s nowhere to be found and I don’t think I’ll make my way back to the area he left me.
I shout his name into the darkening sky above the treetops, but the only answer I get is a light wind rustling the leaves around me ominously. I shiver and try not to panic as the weight of doom settles in my stomach. The bad news is, by the time anyone notices Dax and I are missing it will be far too late. I’ve watched a lot of Survivor Man, so I know even if I eat ants and drink my own piss – I’ll be done for in a few days’ time.
With our SPOT GPS, it could all be avoided. One press of the button, a distress signal would be sent by satellite, and help would be on the way. But Dax has it, and we’re not expected back for a few days; my parents won’t even wonder what’s taking us so long until at least a day after that…
I’ve never felt anything like this before in my eighteen years of life; this horrible, nauseating fear of the darkness – the unknown. My brain is spinning so fast I can’t even formulate a plan to survive, and my voice is getting hoarse from uselessly calling my brother’s name over and over. My throat tightens and constricts with terror; a stinging urge to cry pricking behind my eyes.
10:34 PM MST
A chill has spread through my body. I begin to regret a lot of things and fear that my brother has been eaten by a pack of wolves.
I’ve made a huge mistake.
Step after step, I shuffle blindly, until I collapse to my knees from exhaustion and swallow a sob. I know I shouldn’t let the hopeless thoughts take over, but they’re impossible to stop as one after the other they enter my mind.
I’ll never see my parents again.
I’ll never see Dax again.
I’ll never go to University, get married, and have kids.
I’ll fucking die out here in this dense forest.
These swirling disbeliefs have my complete and utter attention. I don’t immediately notice my surroundings until an unfamiliar noise rips through the air directly in front of me.
I spare a tentative glance across from where I sit – eyes narrowing to focus in the dark. The branches of a large mountain pine are moving, and there is another foreign sound – like a grunt mixed with the clicking of a tongue. Before I can really allow myself to panic, my skin erupts in goosebumps and makes me shiver with dread. Instinct tells me whatever it is on the other side of that tree is looking at me like I’m supper.
Without another moment to spare, I pull myself to exhausted feet and begin a tortuous sprint in the other direction. The animal is quick to the chase. Twigs and fallen leaves crunch underneath the almost galloping movements as it follows me through a densely packed forest. I shout and scream – harder than before when I called for Dax – disappointed by the reach of my voice. With the trees in the way, there is barely an echo. My pleas are dead before they even reach the treetops, yet still I can’t help but try. I call out for Dax as I take a tight left and try to lose the beast, but it’s no use – it’s hungry and I’m just helping to work up its appetite.
Finally, my inherited clumsiness dooms me for good. I trip on a rather large root protruding from the ground and stumble spectacularly down a hill. My jaw hits against a rock and I can barely bring my arms up to protect my face as I get tossed around by Mother Nature. When I settle at the bottom of a small hill, I try to get back up to my feet – only to find that the damage was worse than I thought and there is a large gash down the left side of my leg.
The blood seeping from this wound is making me dizzy, and I glance up to the beast that is steadily making its way towards me. A black bear. He is small – probably not yet full grown – but hungry the way his snout sniffs the air curiously and charges at me.
I give one last, blood-curdling scream before a blast rips through the air and the black bear falls to the ground in front of me; less than an arm’s length away.
At first, I’m not sure what’s happened. My ears are ringing and I’m left in a shock.
10:36 PM MST
I must be dead.
The bleeding in my leg is evidence I’ve finally kicked the bucket.
But an urgent shout to my left has me coming back to my senses.
“Hey! Kid! What are you doing out here!?”
The voice is unexpected and very gruff. I’m still debating whether or not it’s real when I turn my head to spot two shadowy figures making their way towards me. One of the figures is tall – carrying something across a shoulder – and the other figure is much smaller… walking funny… on all fours?
I am numb from shock. When I try to ask “who’s there?” I take a very sharp breath instead and realize I haven’t been breathing until this point. With the oxygen comes the trembling. My hands shake unsteadily as the shadows approach close enough that I can finally make them out.
A man – and a dog – but wait.
Not a dog.
It’s unmistakeable as the wild canine growls at the smell of me and positions itself into an attack. For the second time in what seems like a minute, I’m afraid I’m going to get eaten alive. The sharp teeth are bared and I proceed to unhelpfully imagine them digging into my throat; shaking me to and fro in a locked jaw as my blood drains from my jugular…
“Canuck! Back off!”
The booming voice is commanding and serious, but I have no idea why the wolf would even listen – or why it has a name – and why that name is something as ridiculous as Canuck…
A light bursts forth through the darkness and I’m momentarily blinded. Pupils sting as they contract and I shield my eyes from the invasive brightness. Leaves crunch under the feet of the man as he approaches and squats in front of me.
I can make out more of him now; the outline of a beard. He has a large flashlight in his hands that trails my entire being, and the wolf starts barking and howling unhelpfully as the man reaches forward.
“I said back off!” he snaps to the wolf – like it’s normal; like finding a bleeding stranger in the middle of a forest with your pet wolf on a fucking mountain is normal. I flinch from his touch as the man brings my leg under the direct beam of his flashlight and he tsks. “That’s not good,” he mutters.
With the flashlight set down, and my eyes adjusted, I am caught off guard by the man’s appearance. Behind a bushy, and altogether unkempt beard, is a rather young face and piercing eyes. They lock with mine and his brows furrow immediately, pulling together as he regards me like an inconvenience.
“What’s your name, kid?” he asks, ripping off his jacket, and then proceeding to undress the white cotton shirt underneath. I’m too distracted by his actions – or still too numb from shock at the events – to speak properly. My mouth opens but no sounds come out as I stare blankly at the way the man rips his shirt into long strips and places one just above the laceration.
“O-ow!” I manage finally as he yanks the fabric hard and ties a tight knot. It’s like he’s cutting off my circulation – but that’s good right? I don’t want to bleed out…
One bushy brow raises and I grit my teeth against another round of rough first aid as he applies another strip of fabric to my wound lengthwise
“Calix… Dawson…” I reply between a sharp gasp at the pain.
The man is all business and doesn’t tolerate the way my leg squirms from his bandaging. He presses a knee straight into my ankle to keep it in place as he continues.
“Mind if I ask you just what the hell you’re doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”
“I could ask you the same – ow!” I hiss at the way he’s not even bothering to be gentle. Thick, dirty hands work quickly to apply the bandage but I’m not sure what comes next. I have so many questions, and it’s not a good thing combined with a brain that seems to have come to a complete stop since facing a black bear.
“Been on this mountain two years and haven’t heard a fucking peep. If it weren’t for Canuck racing off, we never would’a found you. Get that? So you better start talking.”
I glance nervously to the wolf as it’s referenced and as if sensing my gaze, the beast starts growling and snarling in my general direction. The fear is enough to snap me back to some of my senses at least, and my hand pulls on the man’s bare shoulder as a rush of words spill out of me. “My brother – Daxton – he’s still out there!” I twist in my spot and look around the nightmarishly dark forest as if half-hoping him to be prancing towards us. “I have to find him…”
The man’s dead stare isn’t lost with the small amount of light we’re dealing with. He’s clearly working out exactly what he wants to say and I’m only vaguely aware that I’m breathing raggedly – hyperventilating with a panic that’s crawling from the pit of my stomach to my chest.
“I get it… look – Calix was it? You seen what’s out there, right? It’s pitch black and you’re not making much sense – I gotta take you back before you bleed to death.”
“Take me?” I repeat, voice sounding far away. “Take me where? What about Daxton? Didn’t you hear what I said? He’s still…”
My head is spinning. Something about the hammering of my heart and the combined dizzying effects of blood loss have me feeling faint.
“Hey, stay focused,” he snaps in a similar way that he did earlier to his wolf. In fact, it is so commanding and rough that I am startled and my head clears a bit as I listen and try to concentrate on the stranger helping me… saving my life… “Good,” he encourages. “We’ll look for your brother tomorrow. Right now, I’m gonna take you to my place so you can rest and we can clean that wound out – okay?”
His intense eyes bore into mine until I nod my understanding and then he pulls himself up onto his feet. After throwing his jacket back on he reaches down for his flashlight and then lifts me under the armpit.
My legs shake and wobble precariously, and an intense pain shoots from the injured leg making me wince and nearly fall. He adjusts me so I’m basically holding on to him for stability, and then shines the light on the corpse of the bear that his not-so-charming pet wolf is pawing at hungrily.
“Damnit… God fucking damnit…” the man mutters again. “Just how am I supposed to…? And what about this…”
He’s not talking to me.
Somehow, I can at least gather that much. The tone he’s using is different than the firm, commanding one he’s employed until now. It’s like he’s talking to himself – and given the beard and the reference to two years living on this mountain – I’m sure he’s long since lost his mind.
But crazy or not, this man is undoubtedly saving my life, and I have no other choice. Stay behind to bleed (and most likely get eaten alive by another predator) or follow this stranger unquestioningly.
“Hold this,” he says – all authority again as he flips the safety on his rifle and passes it over to the hand that’s not holding on to him.
As the man attempts to drag the bear by a limp paw, I’m flabbergasted.
“Wh-what are you – doing?” With his strength occupied trying to manage this corpse, I’m left to limp helplessly beside him – hobbling and gripping his arm as he steadily leads the way.
“Can’t just leave it out here… it’s good meat.”
“You’re going to… eat it?”
The man sighs. “Where’re you from, Calix? The city? Let me break it down for you, because you’re in for a nasty reality check. Ain’t no fucking grocery stores or McDonald’s up this way. Gotta eat to live, right? On top of it, I don’t have a hunting permit, or fuck-all that lets me kill this bear. You could argue self defense, but fact is, I fucking poached it – so I’m not going to let it rot or go to waste. It deserves better than that, right?”
I’m too stunned and weak to work my way through his words. All I can focus on is the admission that yes – this lumberjack mountain man is dragging this black bear corpse all the way home because he’s going to eat it.
A horrifying thought enters my mind and blood drains from my head. I wobble precariously, and the stranger tightens his hold of me as he stops mid-step.
“What’s the matter? If you can’t walk properly, tell me.”
I have to ask or I feel like I’ll barf everywhere – something to blame on the nauseating blood loss, but not altogether unreasonable, given the circumstances.
“Are you – going to eat me too?”
There is a noted pause as the man absorbs my hesitant question, and then he pulls at my collar and forces my face to his. “You think I’m some fucking cannibal? What’s the matter with you? I gotta feeling you’re a thankless fuck…”
He’s angry. There’s no doubt I’ve pissed him off but as long as he’s not going to eat me…
“I’m sorry!” I squeak, feeling very warm suddenly “I’m j-just scared! And confused – and I feel like I’m going to –”
It’s mortifying, because I don’t have anything in me anyway, but somehow my stomach forces out all the runny bile at the worst moment. I dry-heave over the side of the man’s rifle and vomit into pitch dark grass as he keeps me balanced.
When I turn back, he sets me against a tree and presses a hand to my forehead. It’s colder than ice and I flinch from it but he sighs loudly once again, and I can’t immediately tell if he’s disgusted or concerned with the way his eyebrows are pinching together again.
“Hang in there, got it?”
I nod – then immediately regret it. My head pounds with a terrible migraine and it feels like my brain is absolutely throbbing against my skull.
“Alright… skinny… I can do it. Piggyback it is...” he mumbles again, taking the rifle from my hand and setting it against the tree. He drops the flashlight and the bear paw and crouches low so that I can climb onto his back easily and I’m surprised – I hadn’t quite realized how large the man was until I’m against his wide shoulder blades. He’s not outrageously tall so much as he is just muscular – and there’s a reason he has them because as soon as I’m hoisted and locked into place, he picks up the firearm and flashlight in one hand and the bear paw with his other and begins to make his way back. The idea of leaving the bear behind is clearly out of the question even though I’m very well bleeding to death, but I trust the amount of urgency this stranger is putting to my situation. “All you have to do is hold on tight, kid. You can do that right?”
I exhale as if I’m offended, but it brings back the terrible throbbing in my temples. “I’m – not a kid…” I say, like this is the most important part – although it’s true that my arms tighten around his neck so his beard tickles my bare arms.
“Yeah? How old are you – how old’s your brother?”
“I’m eighteen,” I begin, gulping back a hard lump in my throat at the mention of Dax. “And my brother is… twenty four…”
He’s thoughtful – a quiet ‘hmm’ escaping him and I can only hear it because my ear is pressed against the back of his neck.
“What’s your name?” I ask finally through the silence – hoping I’m not losing my mind. This can’t be a dream, and it’s definitely not the afterlife; but it all feels so impossible. This weak, dizzy feeling is making me second guess everything that’s happening.
“Wyatt,” he responds gruffly.
“Last name?” I prompt.
“And this is… your pet wolf?”
I glance to the wild beast trotting faithfully behind us. I am not familiar with dogs of any kind, but I’ve watched enough Dog Whisperer to know it’s following the pack leader.
“Something like that,” Wyatt admits. “Canuck just kind of attached to me. He’s come in handy plenty of times though; sniffed you out a mile away.”
“What are you doing out here?” I ask, switching ears because Wyatt’s cool skin is warming quickly with the heat of my face pressed against his neck.
“Nah, that’s a story you gotta tell first,” he says. “We’re a full day’s hike away to the nearest radio tower, and that’s if you know where you’re going. From there you’re looking at another day – walking fast, not limping around – to get anywhere close to town. You’re on the wrong side of Crowsnest, kid, so how’d that happen?”
Listening to Wyatt’s voice emanate from the back of his throat is hypnotizing. I’m not even sure if I’m keeping up to what he’s saying – focused on how he’s saying it instead. He’s got this voice that’s rough and rumbly – it vibrates in a way that soothes my delirium and demands my focus.
“We were climbing…” I begin. “We came down to camp and rest. Dax… Dax took the Lifestraw, GPS… everything. He told me to wait for him but… it was getting dark and I thought… I could just find him…”
I’m mumbling into Wyatt’s rather dirty skin at the nape of his neck and he jostles me before demanding, “Quit it. That tickles.”
I take deep breaths in, and there’s an odor of earth, grass, sweat and smoke coming from this man. It’s strange that it’s not such a bad scent… less disgusting than you’d think – but maybe my nausea and fear have altered my senses.
“So you couldn’t find your brother – got chased by a bear – fell down a hill and captured by a cannibal, huh? Rough day,” he sympathises, prompting me to continue. I almost miss the last part but as I stiffen against him, he just barks out a short, loud laugh and then adjusts me so I can hold on better. “Just a joke, calm down.”
I don’t have the heart to laugh, but I relax significantly – almost becoming dead weight on Wyatt’s back as he continues his journey to get me somewhere safe. He twists and turns among dark trees – sometimes stomping through thick underbrush. As he navigates us through a rough patch, I make sure to hold on tight and Wyatt appreciates the effort so he can focus his strength.
I drift off at some point because only a moment later Wyatt is snapping at me with that demanding tone. “Calix!”
“You okay?” he asks, hoisting my legs up and prompting me to tighten my grip. “Need me to stop for a bit? We’re almost there…”
Everything is pitch-black, so my eyes draw to the narrowed beam of the flashlight. My vision blurs and I struggle to understand Wyatt’s questions as fatigue comes over me – eyelids drooping.
“Um… I just… wanna lay down,” I reply dreamily.
“We’re almost there,” he repeats. “Hang on.”