The snow was unexpected, but welcome, and covered the trees, early blooming bulbs, and her tracks. She’d covered at least twenty-five miles the day before, possibly thirty, which was no small feat, especially with the weight of her pack. She’d gone as far as she could and then chosen a stand of oaks, possibly Engelmann though it was difficult to be sure in the dark, as her refuge for the night. She’d quickly erected her tent, thrown in her sleeping bag and pack, and disappeared inside, zipping everything up against the oncoming cold, the curious nocturnal animals, and anyone who might be following her.

Fumbling in the dark of the tent for her pack she found her headlamp in the side pocket where she always stored it when camping and put it on, clicking it until it turned blue and therefore less likely to be seen outside the tent. Thus newly able to see she found what she needed in order to sleep soundly: a protein bar, her bottle of water, and a 9mm Smith & Wesson. She double checked the clip, full, let out a sigh that was equal parts exhaustion and relief, then made sure the safety was on and scrambled into her sleeping bag.

She was asleep almost immediately and only woke a few times in the night, due to some critter, likely a possum, scratching around outside for grubs. When she woke the third time she checked her watch and saw that it was nearly five in the morning. Now was as good a time as any to get moving again. It wasn’t until she got out of the bag that she realized just how cold it was. With her breath steaming before her she hurriedly grabbed another protein bar from her pack, rolled up the sleeping bag and shoved it back in along with the headlamp, clipping the water bottle to the outside of the pack. The pistol she tucked in the back of her jeans after ensuring the safety was still on, and the protein bar she shoved in her front pocket, it would get smushed and crumbly there but she didn’t want to lose it and she needed it out of the way while she took down the tent.

When she opened the flap to go out she saw the snow. She’d only expected rain and the snow was a surprise, albeit a beautiful one. The snow would slow her pursuers but it would also slow her down, and while it may cover the tracks she’d left the day before it would highlight her route today. There was nothing for it though. She had to press on. There was always the possibility no one had noticed her disappearance yet. Slim. But possible. She clung to the possibility.

The tent was all weather and super easy to set up and take down, especially since she hadn’t bothered with the guy lines the night before. As she rolled it all back up she noticed the tracks around her: possum. She’d thought so. Raccoons would have tried to get in the tent and a skunk would have had a smell even without spraying. Tying the tent to her pack she re-shouldered it, aching at the straps, out of practice with this sort of hiking and camping, and wishing she was enjoying it more, wishing it wasn’t necessary and merely a vacation.

Unfortunately the pack dug the gun uncomfortably into her back and as much as she liked that it hid the pistol, it wasn’t going to work for a long day of hiking. She removed the pistol and checked again that the safety was in place before stuffing it into the front waistband of her jeans. Much better. Sadly it was obvious in it’s new location but it would also be easier to draw and it was no longer digging in painfully. It would have to do.

Taking her bearings she continued north, the most obvious path of escape but also the hardest to follow. She pulled the protein bar from her pocket, yup, smushed. She opened the top of the wrapper and tried to squeeze bits of it out into her open mouth without choking on the small bits. She tried to eat slowly but she was starving, the bars were great for a snack but didn’t work as a meal, especially not with all the exercise she was getting. Her stomach complained as the meager meal hit it, and she stopped for a moment to wash everything down with her water.

Water would be the next obstacle. She’d only brought what the bottle could carry, unable to support the weight required to bring more. She’d easily be able to filter any water she found but that would require getting to a water source or starting a fire and melting the snow. She’d rather find a creek than wait til she could start a fire, but her thirst would determine how far she could go that day and judging by her stomach she’d need to stop sooner than she’d expected anyway to give herself some calories.

Keeping her head on the trail she was blazing and her feet moving she stopped occasionally to ensure she was still heading north, adjusting her course by minute lefts or rights as necessary over the next several hours. Just when she thought she was going to have to melt some snow she heard the unmistakable sound of water falling over rocks. She followed the sound to a small but clear and rapid river. If there weren’t snow on the ground she’d risk soaking her aching feet in that flowing water, but with the snow it was too dangerous. She couldn’t risk getting stuck here, she needed to cover much more ground before nightfall.

She set her pack down and rummaged around for the water filter. She let the water flow through the system, filling a few pouches and her water bottle. Then she pulled out one of her instant meals, it was going to taste pretty terrible without boiling water, but then they tasted pretty terrible anyway. She added the water, stirred it all up, and forced herself to eat it, drinking more water whenever she gagged. Her stomach complained some more but this time it was from what it was being fed rather than what it was missing. She said a brief apology before finishing the “meal,” and packing everything back up.

Taking her bearings once again she realized she needed to get over this river to continue north which meant this river was the Thorn and she’d come a good forty-five miles and only had another sixty or so to go, assuming she could get across. She looked up and down the parts of the river she could see from her position and didn’t see any way across that wouldn’t have her soaking wet up to her waist. Not a problem in the summer, but definitely not practical right now. She’d have to pick a direction and walk hoping to find a better way across.

There was no easy way to decide which way to go and she was about to head left when she saw movement out of the corner of her eye to the right. She turned slowly and stared at what was left of the ferns growing along the trunks of the trees, paying close attention to the one brown frond bobbing and swaying a bit still from the passage of whatever it had been. She held still and watched. Soon enough a little black nose emerged, followed by two bright eyes, and two perfectly pointed ears. The silver coat rippled as the fox emerged, black forelegs skinny and petite, ending in perfect little paws the size of a quarter. She watched the fox as closely as it watched her, careful not to move a muscle.

The fox made it’s way down to the river slowly, then stood a moment, not quite sure it was safe to drink with her watching and finally lowering it’s head and lapping quickly, a glinting of teeth visible around the red darting tongue. Finished with it’s drink it looked once again at her before sitting down and lifting a paw to it’s face. A quick grooming session, all the while watching her, and then the fox blinked at her and she swore it smiled before turning and dashing off.

She realized she was smiling and for the first time her fear was replaced with the thought that perhaps she would make it. Perhaps she’d gotten started early enough. Perhaps the snow had protected her passage enough. Perhaps the distance she was putting between herself and that place would be enough.

She decided to walk to the right, the way the fox had gone, following the river that way for a chance at a crossing.

~~~That’s one hour~~~

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