Cabin Creek by Madeline ffitch
A story about deception in the wilderness
AN INTRODUCTION BY HALIMAH MARCUS
The story of Madeline ffitch’s “Cabin Creek” is thus. A woman, known only as the boss, supervises a crew comprising, inexplicably, a credit card debtor and a pair of punch-drunk lovers. They are joined by the packer, a “blatantly handsome” man, who showcases his unknowable nose and ffitch’s knack for deploying adverbs. Together, their task is simple: to rebuild a bridge that’s been washed out over the river.
Simple. And yet. The boss both firmly wants to be the boss, and is uncomfortable being in charge. Her subordinates don’t respect her, and she herself recognizes her ascent to power as arbitrary, earned by lack of a personal life or specific ambition: “That’s how she became the boss. She just stayed,” ffitch explains. The mere fact of her position is a knock on her character.
ffitch finds the humor in all of this human mess. She knows that when a person wants power but does not have it, the others seem to be mocking. Particularly when two of those people are obscenely in love. “As a game, they used a bungee cord to hook their belts together and they walked around like that, glowing.” How else could such a performance be construed by a lonely person as anything other than a direct attack?
ffitch’s writing is at once blunt and pastry-layered and light.
When the office radios to the camp word of a fugitive on the loose, the danger presents potential redemption for the boss. If she takes charge of the situation, she can prove her worth. What happens next is as unexpected as anything in ffitch’s writing, which is at once blunt and pastry-light.
Consider the many meanings of an observation such as this: “Old trash, out here, was to be left alone as history. Yet it was hard to keep track of what was to be left alone, what was history, what was trash, what was an improvement.” In the struggle to improve her environment, she also struggles to refine the efficiency of her crew, to strengthen her friendships, and to define herself. By turns such as these, the story lays bare the boss’s strongest and most painful desire, throbbing beneath impotent power grabs: the naked want to be liked.
Editor-in-Chief, Recommended Reading
Cabin Creek by Madeline ffitch
By small aircraft, the crew, their packs, and the shifting, stinking stack of pressure-treated two-by-eights were set down 40 miles into the Idaho backcountry. There were no engines and no wheels allowed, besides the engine and the wheels of the small aircraft. The plane shook itself down onto the buffalo-grass landing strip, jostling the chemical boards against the crew, so that they had to brace themselves against the windows. The pilot waited long enough for the crew to unload the boards, then lifted his plane back into the sky. The crew watched it carve up across the valley, blink out over the ridge, gone. The valley grew dark. There was no one there to meet them.
The place was called Cabin Creek but they didn’t sleep in the ghosty low cabin, pierced every few feet by posts to hold up the roof, 120 years old. They pitched their tents in sight of the cabin, but slept outside on the ground, amid the silver sagebrush and sand drop-seed along the valley’s edge. They lit their stoves and drank powdered hot chocolate and the creek ran.
It was a government job and they had a radio. The office relayed the plan to the crew, and they waited for the packer to arrive with his mules. The first part of the plan was for the mules to carry the boards to the bridge site, two miles from the landing strip. The next part of the plan was for the crew to build the bridge.
The crew boss was a young woman in baggy clothes. She was the boss of three people, two young lovers and a debtor. The lovers had missed the hard weather of the fall and spring, when trees fell and bridges washed out, when trails flooded and the boss hiked all day alone with a fire axe, trying to make it down from the ridges before the lightning came, finding dry tinder only by scraping the underside of logs. The lovers had missed all of that. They had arrived for the summer season and were there to stare at each other. They only set up one tent, though they had packed two into the aircraft. They kept the others up all night.
The boss had been like them once, like them but lonelier. She had joined a crew one summer, yet found herself many months later, eating a stringy Thanksgiving turkey at the ranger station, huddled together with other people who preferred not to talk to each other, who didn’t have plans for the off-season, who couldn’t remember what to do with their per diems. That’s how she became the boss. She just stayed.
The debtor was at least 10 years older than the rest of the crew. He was in his prime. He was in credit card debt. His other life was a dark mystery, something about contracting, but he took the job on the crew to earn money and not spend it. He had worked all spring, and planned to stay until the snow came. Each night at dinner, he tallied up the money he had made so far, cloistered away from temptation. In the backcountry there were no wheels and there was nothing to buy. He was jocular with the lovers, clean jokes always. The worst he would call a person was bonehead or clown. He set store by rituals, making sure everyone saw the small gold cross at his neck, the way he touched it — right hand then left hand — before eating. It chilled the boss. The debtor didn’t like it that a young woman was his boss. The morning after they arrived, he asked, “What are we supposed to do while we wait for the packer, just sit here? Just sit here making our hourly like a bunch of clowns?”
The boss said, “We can make improvements. There are plenty of improvements to be made.”
“It’s illegal for us to make improvements,” the debtor said. “This is by definition an unimproved area.”
“Not those kind of improvements,” the boss said.
“We have the boards so why don’t we just carry them to the bridge site?” the debtor asked.
“We’re going to wait for the packer to bring the mules. Meanwhile, we’ll clear the trail,” the boss said.
“Clear the trail with what?” the debtor asked.
“We’ll use the crosscut saw,” the boss said, and retrieved it from the cabin’s toolshed. When she assembled it, she had trouble remembering how the handles fit, and it was especially hard to do it with the debtor watching her. The two lovers, who had plunged naked into the creek before breakfast, volunteered to take the saw and walk together out onto the trail.
“And you can fix the cabin step please,” the boss said to the debtor.
“With what shall I fix it Dear Liza?” the debtor asked in a singsong.
“Use a large stone,” the boss said. “Just prop it up.”
“Whatever you say, you’re the boss,” the debtor said. He walked sideways up the slope, pulling goldenrod, innocent, smiling, his teeth gleaming into the sand.
The boss left the clearing. She passed the lovers pulling the crosscut back and forth through a white pine that had fallen across the trail. She cut down out of the valley, waded through Cabin Creek at a shallow place. She came up out of the creek bed into the next canyon where the trail made a narrow line through the prairie clover under the wide open sky. She kept on two miles. The ranger had reported that the pack bridge had washed out, had relayed it by radio to the office. The boss found the place, a collapsed bank with some railroad ties tossed aside by winter storms. Coneflower nodded down into the hole, primrose climbed up out of it. The river branch took it all in, eating the bank, claiming it. The boss took some measurements and began the walk back to camp.
This time, before the bend that led down to the creek, she saw a rusted wheel on its side, partly buried in sand. A large wheel. An old wheel. A wagon wheel. Old trash, out here, was to be left alone as history. Yet it was hard to keep track of what was to be left alone, what was history, what was trash, what was an improvement. A tin can was history if it was made before can openers. A wire was history if it had been used to carry telegraphs before this place had been shut off to improvements. The boss could hardly tell one kind of wire from another, yet the wagon wheel she could tell was history, and it also had the dangerous possibility of becoming an improvement. If you picked up the wheel and rolled it, it could help you, which was not allowed. The boss kept her eyes on the trail, let the wheel lie.
But re-crossing the creek, the boss saw a wrapper at the feet of an elderberry stand, a red plastic wrapper that told the story of the bar it had wrapped. It told the story of a guy who had just been a guy in a garage with a snowboard, a mountain bike, and a trumpet, and then one day he just got sick of those other bars, so he made his own bar and it tasted great! This wrapper was easy. It was new trash. It was not history. It had clearly been left way out here by some hunter, some hiker, maybe even another crew, though the crews were supposed to know better. The boss picked the wrapper up and put it in her baggy pocket. She would come back with a garbage bag if necessary, to clean this place up. The boss felt that in the eyes of the debtor she must make resolute decisions, brook no contradictions.
When she got back to camp, the packer had arrived, followed by the pack string of eleven mules and two horses fitted with blinders.
The packer was blatantly handsome with a ravaged unsettling face. For many long years he had chosen the lone job, the job of packer, so he didn’t see many people. When he did see people they asked to take his picture because they weren’t sure what they were seeing. An old man or a young man, acne scars or the weathered face of a cowboy, a brown-skinned person or a white man, no nose or the nicest nose. He stirred people, the way he fit into his jeans, luxuriated in taking a good piss against a ponderosa, yet chewed tobacco with discretion, the way he was perfectly, equitably friendly. He barely showed his preference for his girlfriends when he had them. He was either always flirting or never flirting. Women wanted him to look at them, and then he looked at them and it made no difference.
The packer tipped his hat briefly to the boss, his eyes on his mules. He unhitched them, set them out to graze alongside the cabin, and he and the boss walked over to the landing strip. They could smell the pressure-treated lumber. It outdid the wild smell, the smell of the yarrow, the buffalo-grass, the smell of the mules, everything.
The packer looked at the boards, rubbed the back of his neck. “The pack string will not carry these,” he said. “They are the wrong shape. They are too long. If I try to rope these across my animals’ backs, they will be spooked.” He raised his hand to his mouth and spit tobacco behind it.
“But the people in the office said,” the boss said.
“Yes. The people in the office are the people in the office,” the packer said. “They don’t understand mules. They don’t understand horses. They don’t understand what the pack string will carry.”
“Shit,” said the boss. “If only we could use a wagon. Or a cart.”
“If we could do that, a lot of things would be different,” said the packer. “Probably none of us would be here.”
The boss lifted an acrid board to her shoulder, closed her eyes against the chemical smell. She let it fall back into the other boards. The pile slumped.
“You’re not thinking of carrying them, are you?” asked the packer.
“It’s not so heavy,” she said.
“It’s two miles to the bridge site. That’s out of your pay grade,” the packer said. “I’ll radio the office.” He held out his hand for the radio, and she relinquished it without argument.
While the crew stayed outside, the packer moved into the ghost cabin. He stretched out in it, put his feet up on the deep low windowsill, strung a line between the dark posts to hang up wet socks, walked around in his underwear. The packer drank coffee from beans that he boiled in a pot on the woodstove. He kept his distance from the crew, but he set up a backgammon board on the front step.
Outside, the crew cooked on small stoves with blue flames. The tradition was that they shared the evening meal. The boss cut an onion directly on a rock.
“I think we’ll get germs from that,” the debtor said, tossing jelly beans into his mouth.
“Almost certainly,” the boss said. The lovers whispered to each other. As a game, they used a bungee cord to hook their belts together and they walked around like that, glowing.
The packer came out of the cabin and stood on the front step in his socks. He dipped some tobacco. He took off his hat and held it quietly until the crew stopped what they were doing.
“Did you radio the office?” the boss asked.
“The office radioed me,” the packer said.
“What did they say?” the boss asked.
“They say there’s a fugitive,” the packer said.
“A fugitive?” the boss asked.
“There’s a guy on the loose,” the packer said. “Someone running, someone on the run. He’s wanted for something. A guy who. Who killed someone. A deputy sheriff. He killed a sheriff or a sheriff’s deputy they think.”
“Holy moly,” the debtor said. The lovers listened, their fingers linked together, their eyelashes velvety and damp.
“What should we do?” the boss asked. “I mean, what does the office say we should do?”
“The office says to stay calm,” the packer said. “Don’t go looking for the fugitive. Don’t try to take him in. It’s not our job.”
“But what if we see him?” the debtor asked. “What if he comes through here?”
“If we see him, or if we see his camp, or if he passes us, they say to radio it in,” the packer said. “That’s what the office says.”
“The office. Those clowns,” the debtor said.
The boss did not like to agree with the debtor, but it was true that the office were clowns. The office told them to report every smoldering stump, which they did not do because they did not agree with the office policy on fire management. The office told them to treat their water with iodine or a filter, but they took their chances and drank from clear rushing streams, and sometimes their shit gushed forth painfully but mostly it didn’t. Mostly they were fine.
“They can say what they want,” the packer said. “If I see him, I’m taking him.”
“But maybe he’s a hero, we don’t know,” the boss said. “Like Robin Hood.”
“A hero? They say he killed a sheriff’s deputy,” the packer said.
“Is there a reward?” the debtor asked. “I bet there’s a cash reward.”
“We don’t know what he did,” the boss said. “We only know what the office says.”
“He’s a bonehead,” the debtor said. “Who does he think he is, Rambo? Does he think he is Rambo?”
“Do you think he can make it?” the boss asked.
“Make it, what does that mean?” the packer asked. He spit tobacco into a can. “Look,” he said. “We probably won’t even see the fugitive. The wilderness is vast. It would take a lot to flush a man out. No one seems to understand that.”
“He’d have to want to come near us,” the boss said.
The packer put his hat back on. “I told the office about the two-by-eights,” he said.
“What did they say?” the boss asked.
“They said the pack string can carry them to the bridge site,” the packer said.
“Oh good,” the boss said. “What a relief.”
“The mules can’t move those boards,” the packer said. “They will not do it.”
“Oh,” the boss said.
“Why don’t we just move them ourselves?” the debtor said. “It’s what I’ve been saying all along. What do you think?” He looked at the lovers and the packer, not at the boss. The lovers shrugged and twined together. The packer raised his eyebrows but didn’t get involved. He was the packer and not part of the crew and he liked it that way.
“Carry them to the bridge site?” the boss asked.
“Where else?” the debtor said.
“The bridge site is two miles away,” the boss said.
“What else do we have to do?” the debtor said. “I bet I could carry two at a time.”
The packer shifted, and the front step cracked beneath his weight, lowering him slowly to the ground. For the first time, he looked directly at the boss. She blushed.
“Think your crew could fix this step?” he asked.
“I told you to fix that step, ” the boss said to the debtor. “Why didn’t you fix it?”
The debtor smiled. “I didn’t want to move a large stone,” he said. “It takes rocks like that nearly 100 years to build up such a patina.”
The boss said, “But we are supposed to build things with rocks, I mean instead of man-made things. Just as long as we don’t use an engine or a wheel.” If the debtor had not fixed the step, what had he done instead? Some preparation, some arrangement, another of his rituals? If there was a veil, she tried to see through it, to steady herself, but she couldn’t.
“We can move the two-by-eights tomorrow,” the debtor said, smiling. “It sure beats just sitting around.”
The next morning, the packer sat around while the crew moved the two-by-eights. The boss was not surprised to find out that you can do nearly any stupid thing if that’s all that you are required to do. It was a 10-hour workday and it was a government job, so they carried the pressure-treated two-by-eights, 12 feet long, two miles to the bridge site, one at a time or two at a time, all day long. If that’s all that’s required of you, you can do it all day, and they did. Use a work glove to cushion your shoulder, hoist the board up so that it balances, then down the path to the creek bed, wade across, feel the water fill your boots, climb out the other side into the wide open canyon. Up the bank, along the rut through the sagebrush and clover, come to the bridge site, crash another board down on the pile. The river rushed over the railroad ties, the primrose climbed, the coneflower leaned, the boards stank. They crew passed each other all day on the trail and spoke words of encouragement. The lovers called each other by names that were not their real names, ridiculous names that no one else could understand. If the boss spoke to one of them, they looked at the sand and laughed. The debtor carried two boards at a time. The boss carried one. “Let me know if you need help,” the debtor said. “I know how it is. Some people are better at holding the clipboard, that’s just true.”
They took lunch at the place in the trail where the boss had found the wrapper. Their sandwiches and sardines tasted like the boards, like chemical molasses, rancid candied ginger. After, the boss went to dig a cat hole behind a tree, fifty feet up out of the creek bed. She got her pants down, squatted, then noticed, right next to her boot, a pile of human shit. Sitting there on the leaves. Steaming there with a pinecone on top of it. The boss felt cold. She felt like she had shit before she had shit. Then she looked up and she saw the color red through the trees. She did not know what it was, but this time it was not a wrapper. It flashed out at her through the leaves. The creek bed was far too green, too lush, too much dogwood and elderberry, too many leaves radiating out and out so the boss couldn’t understand distance, depth or height or if she was looking up a slope. She could have been looking into a mirror, but among the leaves a swatch of red. It could be red flannel, canvas, a tanager, a scrap of something larger. Her bowels lost their urge. She got a prickle, sensed a presence. She pulled up her pants and went back to the crew.
“Find anything exciting back there? Enlightenment? Gold?” the debtor asked, which was what he asked when anyone came back from shitting. The lovers laughed, fed each other the crusts of their sandwiches.
“Nothing,” the boss said. “Nothing you would be interested in.”
That night, alone in her tent, the boss turned on her flashlight and its beam caught a lock of her own hair, hanging in a slipknot from the mesh ceiling. She was so frightened that she shut off her light and sat in the dark, feeling cold dread drench her, listening, listening. That was when she began to believe that the debtor was a witch. That was when she began to be really afraid. His bland smile covered his close watch of her, his furious sideways glance, the talisman at his neck. He was a hidden person, he was watching her, looking for a weakness. Quivering there in her tent, as the lock of hair cast a shadowed semaphore on the wall, she planned to drop her fingernails into the creek where he would not be able to retrieve them, to bury her hairbrush, to save her spit after she brushed her teeth. She thought about how she was a part of everything, all the bits of her going on forever burrowed beneath the dry sand, beneath the rushing, speaking creek.
The next morning at breakfast, she watched the debtor hide his evil nature. He drank a cup of coffee, hocked a loogey. He said to the lovers, “One time I was in traffic and the guy ahead of me was being a real bonehead, like going real slow in the fast lane, so I said to myself, what is it with this guy? What a clown! And then I pulled up to pass him and looked in his window, and guess what? He really was a clown! With a red nose and a rainbow wig and everything. Can you beat that?” He laughed and the lovers laughed, but the boss just stirred her hot chocolate, looking up at the debtor from under half-lowered lids, appraising him. He dabbled in the occult. If he planned to destroy her, she must make herself powerful. She must amass help. Yet who could she talk to? The packer would probably agree that the debtor was a witch but he probably wouldn’t care. He would just rub the back of his sunburnt neck, chew tobacco, gaze at his perfect boots. It was impossible to talk to the lovers. She didn’t want to try.
After carrying the boards all day, the crews’ necks were itchy and red. Their eyes watered from the chemical that had been used to treat the boards. They had headaches. The lovers went in the creek and the boss and the debtor soon followed. It was the only way. They soaked their bandannas and lay them against their necks, raw where the lumber had rubbed. They made their bodies flat down in the creek. The boss and the debtor kept their clothes on, but the lovers let the creek water drip off their pubic hair so that it looked like they were peeing. The lovers found a submerged log and draped themselves across it. The water eddied off their lithe bodies. Nearby, the mules stamped. One horse laid its head upon the other horse’s back. They lashed their tails against the flies.
The packer lounged on the cabin step. “It’s probably dangerous for you to be carrying those boards so close to your brains,” he said. “I wouldn’t do it. Do you know what they use to treat those boards with? Arsenic maybe or something. Rat poison.”
“Oh, holy moly,” the debtor said. He looked at the boss. “Now that is something it would have helped to know ahead of time.”
“Are you joking? You’re the one who wanted to do it this way,” the boss said.
“Me, I’m just a cog in the wheel,” the debtor said.
“Did you tell the office we’re doing it this way, when you radioed?” the boss asked the packer.
“This morning the office said there’s a cash reward for bringing in that fugitive,” the packer said.
“I knew it,” said the debtor. “Does the office get the reward or do we?”
“He might be armed so they say just let him pass,” the packer said.
“What about carrying the boards? Did they say anything about that?” the boss asked the packer.
“They say whatever gets the job done, just move them. Just build the bridge. Even if you put it on overtime,” the packer said. “I don’t know that I would do it, but that’s what they say.”
The boss stretched out her shirttails, wrung them out. She twisted her hair under her hat. She took off first one boot, then the next, emptied water from them. She put her boots back on, left them halfway unlaced. She stuffed a peanut butter sandwich in her pocket.
“I’m going to take a walk,” she said.
The boss found the fugitive easily. When she had seen that pile of shit, some part of her had known. Some part of her had known that the fugitive was in trouble. If you can’t even cover your own shit you probably don’t know how to hide out for long. And the red wrapper. And finally the flash of red through the trees. So she went back to that green radiating place, she returned to the elderberry stand and looked up the creek bed, and she saw the glimmer of red again, but this time she turned off the trail. She went towards the red. As she crashed through the undergrowth, she kept her eye on that red piece, until she drew close enough to see that it was the corner of a tent. A tent with a red rain fly, a fire ring on the ground, a backpack spilled open, energy bars in red wrappers strewn on the ground. The boss stepped into his camp.
“Hello,” she called. “Hello, I found you.” First there wasn’t a sound but there was a low fetid odor and the moments passed and she began to consider a dead body. But then the tent’s zipper came down, and he put his head outside the door. The odor poured out with him. “I’ll fucking shoot you,” the fugitive said. “Or give me some food or some help.”
“Don’t shoot me,” she said. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
“No, you’re not,” said the fugitive. “I could hurt you. Give a man a chance. It wasn’t my fault even though they say it was. I could shoot you.” He blinked further into the light. He climbed all the way out of his tent. He pulled himself to his feet. He wore a windbreaker, blue jeans that bagged at the knee, some broken hiking boots. The fugitive was a small man. He had a beard, many days’ growth. He smelled like cheese and vinegar, stale cigarettes, fear. He did not seem to have a gun.
“I just want to talk to you,” the boss said.
“Fuck talking, could you get me some food? All I have to eat are these bars,” the fugitive said. “Used to like these things, too. Can’t believe it, they’re like a candle melted onto cardboard.”
“I brought you some food,” the boss said. She took the damp sandwich from her pocket and he fell upon it.
The boss was momentarily disappointed. She’d had higher hopes for the fugitive. In her mind, she had conjured him as someone who only ate pemmican, who walked into the wilderness with one bullet, stuffing brush down into his clothes, who hunted and gathered, not someone who ate these irritating bars, who ate this damp sandwich as if it were steak. But then she thought, if you are on the lam, you just eat whatever’s easiest, and those bars are all over the place by the crate load just sitting there behind every convenience store. Just grab a few and run. The boss felt that prickle again. She had made up her mind before she’d even set foot in the fugitive camp, before she’d even seen him. She knew she would not turn him in.
“I saw your shit,” she said. “You should cover it if you don’t want to be caught. You should not litter wrappers. This is a pristine area.”
“Listen to yourself,” said the fugitive with a mouthful of peanut butter. “Who are you?”
“I’m the crew boss,” she said. “I’m out here building a pack bridge. Give us a week. Once we build the bridge you can cross it and keep going. The others want to turn you in but I don’t. It’s like I told them, we don’t even know what you did. You could be a hero. You could be like Robin Hood.”
“I stopped paying child support,” the fugitive said. He finished the last piece of crust, belched. “Couldn’t keep up with it. Never could. Never did. Then they came after me with a warrant and I lit out, and on the way I maybe took a pot shot at the sheriff’s car, but that kid was always an asshole, he had it coming, I grew up with that guy. Seriously. I’ve always got the bad side of things, and now I’m being hunted down like a dog. But I’m foxy. They can’t catch me. Let them try.”
“I can see your tent from the trail,” said the boss. The fugitive looked at her.
“You seem like you know what you’re doing out here,” he said. It felt good to hear.
“I do,” she said. “I’m the boss.”
“You could help me hide better,” he said.
So together, they found a new place for his camp, staked his tent low behind a black cottonwood tree. The boss told him: no fires allowed, they will see your smoke. Clean up the wrappers. Go further back to shit, dig a deep hole, cover it with needles and leaves so no one can see where you dug. The fugitive nodded obediently to all orders. Then it was nearly suppertime.
“I will come back when I can,” she said.
“Bring more food,” he said. “Coffee. Cigarettes. Fuck all, I’m bored. Bring something to do.” He did not thank her.
At camp, the debtor did not take his eyes off her, but she pretended not to notice. They cooked supper. The boss cut a carrot directly on a rock. Many times the debtor opened his mouth as if to ask her a question, but when he finally spoke, he said, “Cutting on a rock will dull the knife.”
“Almost certainly,” the boss said.
After dinner, they took turns playing backgammon against the packer until it was dark. The boss went to her tent and sat inside its doorway to take off her boots. The lovers murmured in the dark of their tent. The debtor’s tent was quiet. The packer turned down the lantern in the cabin. For a while, it was only the cicadas. Then, from behind her, in the lodgepole stand, the boss heard something. A crack. A break. She peered through the back screen of her tent. At first, nothing. Then she saw a movement in the stand, a brief separation of shadows. The debtor stepped furtively from behind a pine. He looked to either side of him, then continued along the tree line, skirting the clearing. The boss held her breath, watched him circle the camp, lost him in the deepening night. What was he doing out there? The witch, the boss thought, the witch. But though the arches of her feet panged and her mouth went dry, she thought of her fugitive and felt stronger. The boss lay awake a long time. She did not hear the debtor return.
While the others splashed in the creek, walked the horses, or played backgammon, the boss spent quiet afternoons with the fugitive. He did what she told him to, but he was not very grateful. He pressured her for sex.
“I’ll go right for your eyes, you try anything” she said, showing her thumbs. She had brought him leftover oatmeal and they shared it, poured on some freeze-dried marshmallows. He wore a pair of her socks.
“Then what are you after?” he asked.
“A secret,” she said. “I want to show them I can do this. I’m the bravest. I’m the best at this job. I do it my own way. They think I’m like some kind of example of affirmative action or something.”
“They? Who is they?” he asked.
“It’s just one guy,” she said. “It’s this guy on my crew. He’s older than me. He’s only doing this job because he owes money. I’m glad I’ve got you to talk to.”
The fugitive laughed.
“What’s funny?” she asked.
“Talk to me? Talk to me about what?” he asked.
“About my real feelings. About how much I hate this fucking guy. Sometimes I think he wants to kill me,” she said.
“Now let’s not go there,” he said. “You don’t know the first thing about it.”
“He acts all squeaky clean, but he’s a chauvinist,” she said.
“So? Lots of people are,” the fugitive said.
“He’s in credit card debt,” she said.
“So? Lots of people are,” the fugitive said.
“One of the things I do is try to show him that I’m stronger than him,” the boss said.
“But you probably aren’t,” the fugitive said. “You’re a girl.”
“I can out-hike him,” she said. “And I’m a harder worker because I have to be. So I hike next to him and talk about the project and he can’t talk because he’s too out of breath and that’s how I show him who is the boss.”
“Y’all are sad,” the fugitive said.
“You aren’t sad?” the boss asked.
“About what?” the fugitive asked. “I’m feeling very alive.”
“But everyone is sad,” the boss said.
“Who is everyone?” he asked.
“I’m sad,” she said.
“See? Just like I said,” he said.
“The world is fucked up,” she said. “I mean for one thing death is as unknowable and terrifying as it has ever been. There is racism and poverty, there are small things like stomach aches and loneliness. Why even list all the reasons there are to be sad? Just think about global warming.”
“Oh come on, that shit’s not going to happen,” he said. “When I was in the jungle, meaning Vietnam, I looked around and knew the only god was mother nature and since then I knew she’d provide and I’m not worried about people messing it up. We can’t even make a dent.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” she said. “That’s just a fantasy.”
“A fantasy? Whoo boy. You don’t even want to hear my fantasies,” he said. “Can’t you bring me a deck of cards or anything,” he said. “Can’t I light a fire?”
“I said no fire,” the boss said. “We’ve got to keep you safe.”
In the lodgepoles and along the trail, the boss found traces of the debtor’s craft: a knot of grass, a symbol made of twigs, a small arrangement of stones. She gazed at these, transfixed, then shook herself, kicked dirt over them, scattered the stones with her boot. When she came upon the debtor holding his pendant, looking at her sideways, she kept her head high, looked through him. Now she had the fugitive, she was not so afraid.
The boss hoarded food for the fugitive, filling her pockets, hanging it in the trees after supper each night. Granola, granola bars, bananas, packets of tuna. During the day, the work came more easily as she considered would bring the fugitive next. The boss began to look forward to the walk back through the valley once she had left one rank board and was going to retrieve the next one. She sang an old song through the prairie clover, hard times come again no more. She let her arms swing free. She met the debtor coming towards her with two boards. He smiled hugely, leaned the boards down to rest against the sand. She felt strong, unafraid.
“Let’s use the wheel,” the debtor said.
“The wheel?” she asked.
“You’ve seen it, don’t act like you haven’t,” he said.
“No wheels,” she said. “No wheels, no engines.”
“Let’s use it to build a cart,” he said.
“It’s from the Oregon Trail,” she said. “It’s part of history. It’s a covered wagon wheel. We can’t use it.”
“Who is going to know?” he asked.
“The packer,” she said.
“It would be a secret from him,” the debtor said. He smiled at her. “I’m not so bad,” he said. “I know I can be a bonehead, but I’m not so bad.”
The lovers came up behind them, pushing the wheel. Their laughter was like the creek, like the clover. One of them gently brushed the hair from the other’s eyes. They were like wild ponies. The boss tried to maintain her wide armed stance, her open-hearted strength, but she felt the familiar feeling of her power flowing out of her, dissipating into the sagebrush and sand. She hesitated. She wanted the cart too.
So they fastened a board on either side of the wheel to make an axle, and they used it as a cart. They loaded the cart with two-by-eights, and the boss pulled it, and the lovers steered it on either side, and the debtor went along behind with a pine branch, wiping away the snakelike track they made along the trail.
One morning, the crew woke up and the backgammon board was gone.
“The fugitive,” the packer said. “I knew he was around here, I had a strange feeling.”
The boss flushed, thought quickly. “Why would the fugitive steal your backgammon board?” she asked. “Of all things.”
“Then where is it?” the packer asked. The boss could not think how to answer.
Then the debtor was there, sucking down coffee, talking fast. “I’m sure the fugitive didn’t take your backgammon set,” the debtor said. “If he’s on the run, he would not be able to carry something like that with him. It wouldn’t be practical.”
The packer looked at him, then at the boss. He paused. “Why are you making it your business to defend the fugitive? ” he asked. The boss felt calcified, slow. She opened her mouth, but the debtor cut in.
“You must think we’re a couple of boneheads,” he said. “Why would we defend him? We don’t even know where he is,” he said. The boss, cold, looked at the debtor. She tried to stay calm. The debtor drank the last of his coffee. He looked at her sideways, caught her eye and held it.
“Someone’s playing a prank,” the debtor said. “Someone’s being a clown.”
Out of sight of the packer, they loaded lumber onto the cart. This way, they could take six boards at a time. After they dropped the first load at the bridge site, the lovers skipped back ahead through the canyon, taking it in turn to give the other one a piggy-back ride. The boss and the debtor pulled the empty cart behind them. The boss tried to clear her mind, tried to just breathe, tried to feel her power. She tried to speak. But the debtor said, “That was close back there, with the packer. He was almost onto us, don’t you think? Holy moly, wasn’t that wild?”
“Onto us?” she asked.
“About the fugitive,” he said. When she didn’t say anything, he said, “Oh, come on, I know you’ve been visiting him, too. He told me. I think he likes you.” The debtor nudged her.
“But when?” the boss asked. “When have you visited him?”
“At night,” said the debtor. “I bring my lantern over. We play cards, backgammon, drink Dr. Pepper, just a snifter. After all, it’s an early morning for me.”
“I told him no lights,” the boss said.
“What a stick in the mud. You’re not his boss, you know,” the debtor said.
“He’s my friend,” the boss said. “I want him to be safe.”
“Oh, right, your friend,” the debtor laughed. “I understand him,” he said. “I understand why you might need to run away from your life. I’m not saying he doesn’t like you, too. He does, I think. I think the fugitive likes you as more than a friend. I mean, you may not be great looking, but.”
“Okay, but what are you going to do?” she asked.
“Eventually I’m going to turn him in,” the debtor said.
“But you just said it. You said he’s your friend,” the boss said.
“Ha. He’s more like an experience I’m having,” the debtor said. “He’s nice and all. But he doesn’t even believe in global warming. He’s a real bonehead. He killed a guy. It’s not my fault this can’t last.”
“It’s the reward, isn’t it?” she said.
“Well,” the debtor said. “Darn. Okay,” he sighed. “I need that. I could really use that reward. You aren’t going to ruin this for me?”
The boss saw each small thing separately, the silver leaves of the sagebrush, the frayed rope, the skewed wheel, the track in the sand behind them. She saw each thing, yet could not grasp them, the way they trembled in the light, nearly lost their edges. She felt her power return, surging up into her from the valley floor. She had to act, she had to warn her fugitive, she had to keep him safe. She turned to the debtor. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I don’t care about the reward.”
The boss went to the fugitive’s camp right after work. She made no pretense, and the debtor waved at her, and gave her a broad wink as she left camp. The boss was past caring. She was full of her mission. I will save him, she thought. I will get to him in time. I will let him know that the witch is duplicitous. The witch seeks to destroy him, just as he seeks to destroy me. She crashed up the creek bed, she burst into his camp, she saw the fugitive, sitting with his boots up on a log, the green valley choking up around him, cradling him in place, the heap of wrappers and cigarette butts clogging the camp. Unable to budget, he sat eating the last of his bars, playing backgammon against himself.
“Little lady,” he said. “What did you bring me? A man’s gotta eat. I’m nearly out of bars.”
She thought, That witch, that debtor is a double crosser. She thought, I have to warn him. But instead she said, her voice ringing and bitter, “You betrayed me.”
“Me?” he said. “Oh lord, little lady, you fiery thing. What the hell is your damage? Are you on the rag?”
“You’ve been fraternizing with other people on my crew and you didn’t even tell me,” she said, and now, to her own ears, her voice sounded like a whine.
“Oh, what is it with women, always so jealous. Come on, girl. What did you bring me? Please tell me it’s not more bars. I could use a decent cup of coffee,” he said, and moved a backgammon piece.
“I thought you were my friend. That debtor’s a piece of shit. Worse than that, he’s a witch,” the boss said.
“A witch? Where did you pick that up?” asked the fugitive. “Look, you’re alright company even though you won’t put out. I am humbly grateful for the time we’ve had together. But then that friend of yours started coming around.”
“He’s not my friend,” she said.
“Well, he started bringing me all kinds of things you never did. A map. Some jerky. This backgammon board.”
“I would have brought you those things,” she said, her voice pleading, high pitched. “I would have. That debtor’s trying to destroy me. He’s trying to destroy you too.”
“I like him,” the fugitive said. “He’s a man’s man. You complain a lot. He never complains. You always brag, you’re trying too hard, you’re trying to prove something. Not him. And you ever notice how many plants he knows? Edible things. Which mushrooms not to eat. You ever on the run from the law, he’s your man.”
Seeing her face, he laughed. “Pity party,” he said. “Sad violin. Come over here and play me.”
“I don’t feel like it,” she said.
“Oh, come on, don’t pout. One round,” he said.
“I don’t want to,” she said, beginning to wilt.
“You can have first go,” he said. He wagged a backgammon piece at her. Quietly, she sat down beside him.
“The others think we should turn you in,” she said. “But I would never do that.”
“I know you wouldn’t,” he said. “I trust you.”
At night, the rain began and the boss lay in her tent being concerned for the fugitive. His cheap tent was probably a lake by now in that low place they’d staked it. Then the boss had to pee. Naked, she crawled from her sleeping bag. She unzipped her tent and took two big steps downhill away from it so that her pee wouldn’t trickle back inside. She squatted and set forth a strong stream of urine. It steamed up beneath her from the mud, sending its warm smell back into her face. When she was finished, she realized she could not see a thing, not her tent, not her hand before her face. She did not have her flashlight. She was naked in the rain. She took two big steps back in the direction she thought she had come, but she did not reach her tent. She opened her eyes until they stung, which did nothing. It was a blackout. She reached her arms out around her in a wide circle, but still she did not feel her tent. The boss lowered herself again to all fours. She crawled uphill, because she knew her tent was uphill, but soon she was crawling into a thicket, feeling pine needles and rocks beneath her. She had left the clearing. So she backed up until she found herself return to an open place, which she hoped was camp. She tried to orient herself but that was now impossible. The rain came harder. She was getting cold. The boss had heard of people lost in blizzards, in whiteouts, being found dead just feet from their tents. Sometimes they had crawled in circles around and around their tents and had never found their way inside, and had died that way, as lost as if they had been miles from safety. The boss thought of calling for help, but she was naked. And she was embarrassed. So she kept crawling. On all fours, she moved forward into the dark force that pressed against her, she pushed at it, she tried to make it give way.
It was a long time later that a light came on. The boss was shivering, desperate. Her hair hung in dripping ropes alongside her face. Her fingernails were full of mud. She was exhausted, beginning to dim. But still, she hesitated before she crawled toward the light. It was the packer, on the front porch of the cabin. He was right there before her on the step, not forty feet away. The step, the cabin, had been that close the entire time. He looked out into the dark. “Hello,” he said. “Is there someone there?” But she stayed silent. She had become a skittering thing of the night, a thing with sharp teeth, a thing that came from the creek, that bit into live animals and drank their blood, a staring raw-eyed thing that did not come near the human settlement. She backed away from the light. Now she knew where the cabin was, she could orient herself. She knew her tent was directly behind her, maybe ten paces away. She knew she could make it. “Hello?” the packer called. She didn’t answer, but she backed into the tool cache and metal clattered. She crouched, stayed still. “Who’s there?” the packer’s voice came again. Silently, she waited him out. Eventually, he turned off the light. It was black again. She heard nothing from the cabin. She stayed low, turned around, and crept toward home.
The boss reached out for the door of her tent, stretched her arm, stretched her fingers, and something caught her foot and pulled her down. She hit the ground and a rock came up into her mouth against her teeth and she tasted blood. An arm came up behind her and buried her face in the mud. Her elbow buzzed and her knees rang out, she was in a tangle with another warm body. That other body was grunting. “Phheuw, Hunnng” it said, other noises from the gut, she was crushed beneath it. She could not see the other body, but it pinned her. She rested.
“Got you,” he said. It was the packer. “You fugitive. I got you. What do you want, is it food or guns, what is it? What did you do? Huh? Tell me what you did.”
“First it was child support,” the boss said. “Then I tried to shoot my way out. That was my mistake.” She rested in the black cold mud.
“What?” he said. “What?”
“It’s me,” she said. Her laugh surged up low and liquid in her throat.
The packer hesitated. His body went slack, uncertain. Then he reached up and felt her left breast, an appraising squeeze, a weighing. He breathed in sharply, backed up, took his hand away.
“It’s you. Oh Jesus,” he said. He switched on the flashlight. “I thought you were the fugitive out here,” he said. “What the fuck, what’s going on, what are you doing? Why are you naked?”
“I got lost,” she said.
“What was that about child support?” he asked.
Nearby, the debtor’s light came on, setting his tent aglow. Inside, the debtor’s shadow swung up against the cloth walls. The boss heard the brief shrill of the zipper, saw the door fall open.
She sat up. She pulled the packer to her, clamped his sinewy forearm. She dug her nails in.
“What the hell?” he said. “Let go. You’re hurting me.”
“I found the fugitive,” she told the packer. It had begun raining again. The boss held onto the packer and did not let go. “I know his camp. I know him. We have to radio the office. We have to turn him in.”
Outstanding issues, such as the packer’s groping hand in the dark, the boss did not bring up. She didn’t mention it, but she would consider that hand for years. That hand weighing her breast, that quick furtive hand in the dark. The hand that belonged and did not belong to the packer. In the light, it was not his hand, but in the dark, in the mud, it was.