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by Danielle L. Parker

part 7 of 11

A high altitude frost lay upon their camp like a pristine white sheet. Blunt’s half-frozen bedroll crackled as he crawled into the bitter air and staggered to his feet. Across the embers of the night’s fire, the biologist snored like a tidal bore in his borrowed nest of blankets, a puff of frosty white accompanying each wheezy exhalation.

Teddy Bremner hobbled in the pre-dawn dimness, cooking pot in hand, grumbling and complaining with every breath. “I too old for dese treks. And now! Dis professor. De eats our food. De sleeps in our blankets. De ruins everydink!

“Short of hog-tying, I’m afraid we’re stuck with the professor.” Blunt bent to lace up his boots, straightened, swung his arms and stamped his frozen feet. “Damn, but it’s cold! I’ll get that fire going.”

The trapper grunted. “Watch out for ganglions!”

“You’re going to have to tell me about these ganglions one of these mornings.” Blunt pulled out his gun and squinted at the charge. “But if it sings or squeals, I’ll probably shoot it. I listened to an entire symphony last night, and most of the squeals were off-key. I’d have sooner slept alongside a herd of pigs.”

The old man chuckled rustily. “Zooks squeal. Do no harm. But ganglions! De dissolve de head, de will! Eat de brain, whole! Den de sing, sing and speak in de own voice and in de own words, many nights. Ach, de ganglions, de are bad!

Blunt holstered his gun and surveyed his surroundings more soberly.

Darkness had concealed their campsite. In the dawn, Blunt saw a broad, uneven, rock-strewn clearing. Little more than hacked-down stumps stood more than fifty meters in all directions. Earlier travelers had cut down many trees either for campfires, or in fear of pards or of the mysterious ganglions.

Blunt did not find it easy to stir up the fire with his hard-gained collection of leaves and sticks. If his handfuls of oily leaves flamed obediently, the sticks were obstinate in their refusal to be consumed. The dense, iron-hard wood was scarcely more combustible than stone.

Blunt was forced to make several tedious foraging trips for leaves, one taking him perilously close to dense tree cover. Ethereal voices sang in the vernal depths — mournful, multipartic, monkish chants that swelled in the cathedral of tall tree-spires, and died away to the echo of his retreating footsteps.

Steam and cooking odors soon wafted from the trapper’s collection of smoke-darkened pots. The biologist yawned over the fire, a mug of tea in his hand, his toes perilously close to the embers. Bremner slapped porridge into bowls, dispensing breakfast with a running commentary of sub-vocal grumbles.

“Decidedly chilly! Good morning, Captain.”

“Morning, Professor.” Blunt spooned his serving. The porridge was mealy and slightly salty, but hot enough to be welcome. “When do you expect to reach Spit It, Bremner?”

The old trapper smoothed droplets of cereal from his long white beard and peered up at the brightening sky. “Late afternoon, hey? If ve don’t have to vait on de fat old professor here, hey.”

“Rutgers is part of the show now, Bremner. He can ride the packhorse. We’ll have to divide its burden between us.” Blunt inclined his head ironically. “That’s unless you’d prefer to travel alone or on foot, Professor.”

Rutgers’ round red face beamed. “Glad to join you, Captain.”

“That’s settled, then.” Blunt scraped the last of his porridge out of the bowl. “In that case, you can wash dishes, Prof, while Bremner and I prepare the horses. There’s no point in wasting time. Spit It or bust!”

Proceed to part 8...

Copyright © 2010 by Danielle L. Parker

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