tagNon-EroticBelow the Tree Line

Below the Tree Line

byWild Blue©

He stood over the body, staring, unable or unwilling to move. He felt a trickle of blood crawling down his arm from the scuff on his elbow, mixing with sweat and dirt as it descended. His arms now hung limply at his side. But he still held the rock, his fingers refusing to let go. He heard the muted pat pat of blood dripping from the stone as it fell on dried leaves carpeting the forest floor. The bright mid-day sun fought through the dense canopy of trees and cast dancing shadows on the corpse.

He gazed silently, for many minutes. His eyes were fixed on the puddle of hair and brain that had once been the back of a head. His sense of remorse was a distant whisper under the storm of satisfaction as he watched the torrent of blood continue to issue forth. His heart thumped madly in his chest, and his lungs burned from the struggle, wringing oxygen from the thin mountain air. His eyes stung from the sweat pouring down his face. He blinked hard at the pain and then remembered himself.

Where was that hatchet?

He kicked at the leaves and rummaged with his hands until he found it. He held it up and caught his reflection in the polished bit, bent and twisted. His stomach turned and he bent to vomit.

The body was heavy, but he managed to roll it over. Bending close, he saw the horror of his actions. The face had gone slack and expressionless. But the marks where his fingers had dug into the flesh around the neck, broken teeth and bruises from the fight were very clear. They screamed out to him, but he couldn't hear.

He bent down and whispered.

"I told you..." his words shook with adrenaline. "Damn you..." he cried.

He raised the hatchet high above his head, aiming for the exposed neck. How had it come to this? He couldn't believe it. The blade glinted in the sunlight as he slashed downward in his fury.

"GOD DAMN YOU!!!" he screamed. His voice bellowed among the trees followed by the startled flutter of birds.

*

Curtains of water exploded into the air as the pontoons of the airplane split the glassy surface of the lake. David and Sabrina Sanford could hear, as much as feel, the water striking the bottom of the plane. They felt themselves rock forward as the plane settled on to the floats. The pilot pulled the throttle back to idle and turned the plane towards the shore.

His voice crackled in their headsets, "This is Two One Seven Bravo Lima, we are feet-wet."

They heard a man reply, hissing but discernable, "Roger Bravo Lima. Dock three, Pete."

"Roger." The pilot said to the male voice. He kicked the rudder to point the aircraft left. The water was now a muted burble somewhere beneath their feet. He turned to his passengers.

"See. I told you she would get us there!" he grinned reassuringly. Of all people who were ever scared of flying, the man behind him did not look the part. David was tall, six two in boots, like the ones he wore today. His piercing green eyes remained hard, hiding the relief he felt inside. He was scrunched into the back seat, and had been uncomfortable since take-off, now forty minutes past. Pete thought he looked like someone who should be here. Tall, broad, callused hands and perpetual 5 o'clock shadow. The wife, though... That he didn't get.

Sabrina was the antithesis of anyone who should be here. Petite, black hair that hung to her waist, and dark skinned, she looked like she'd be more at home in Cancun. Why the hell was she here?

The aircraft coasted to a stop a mere ten inches from the dock. A lineman leapt from the pier and quickly secured a rope to a cleat on the pontoon, snugging the plane against rubber bumpers.

He reached for the door to let the guests out. Suddenly, it flew open, shoved hard from the inside. He yanked his hand back in time to avoid broken fingers, but nearly lost his balance. Bracing himself against the fuselage, he watched a large man clamber out of the door. With amused understanding, he jumped back to the wooden dock.

"Welcome to Hallo Bay," he said, stifling a chuckle.

He received a hard look from the large passenger, who stretched his arms high above his head, willing the tension to leave. The lineman turned back to the opened door.

"Aha," he coughed in surprise at the other passenger, "welcome." Sabrina put her small, delicate hand into the one he offered. She stepped clumsily out of the airplane, her legs stiff.

"Hey Pete," he said, louder than he needed to, "nice Beaver!"

David turned only in time to see the young man, whom he suddenly disliked, holding his wife's hand. His eyes scanned back and forth from the boy to his wife, and then to the pilot, who was now struggling to get out of the plane quickly.

"Dammit, Lyle! I told you that joke is getting old!" Pete was not yet out the door as he said the words. His foot caught on the doorjamb and he fell hard on the wooden pier.

David stepped over to offer a hand, pushing between the young man and his wife, not because they were in the way, but he wanted distance between them. David extended his arm and Pete clasped his forearm, and David his. "Please forgive my young unemployed assistant!" directing the last two words emphatically and loudly towards Lyle. "He says that every time we bring in a husband and wife."

David watched the pilot brush himself off and adjusted his AOPA baseball cap. Pete looked up at the taller man, blinking at the waning sun, seeing that he was waiting for a more specific answer. "The plane," he said, gesturing to the bright yellow aluminum plane, "the DeHaviland Beaver."

Pete walked over to Lyle, equal in height to him, but slender and wiry. Lyle grinned, amused at himself, despite the older man's anger. He slapped the boy in the back of the head, causing his hat to tumble into the water.

"Hey!" Lyle yelled, annoyed. He ran his fingers through his sandy blonde hair, rubbing the tender spot where he'd been hit.

"I told you..." Pete said, pointing his finger just inches from Lyle's nose. He turned back to the new arrivals. "He thinks it's fun to get a rise out of the husbands, so every couple of weeks, we go through this routine."

Lyle busied himself at unloading luggage from the plane. Pete looked over the mountains to the west. He saw the telltale signs of Alaska's moody weather. "I hope you brought some warmer clothes." Clouds were building fast and the sky was growing dark.

Lyle led the new arrivals to the lodge. "Damn, I hate when this happens," Pete said to no one.

*

"...and here's your keys Mr. Sanford."

"David, please?" he said in response to the man at the front desk, preferring informality. He picked up the ancient brass keys, fastened faithfully to the yellowed and cracked plastic diamond by a steel ring. They looked like they came off the wall at a roadside motel pulled right from Route 66. Americana.

"You got it, David," he said with a nod. "James Arturo Zimmer." A grin crossed his thin lips, knowing.

He got a quizzical look from his guest.

"I don't like James, Jim, Jack or Arturo. Everyone around here calls me Jaz, and I expect you and your lovely wife to do the same," he continued, leaning on his elbows. His good nature gave his gravelly voice a natural 'smile' that matched the one on his face and made one automatically like the guy.

The radio on the counter squealed loudly and both men jumped. Jaz quickly turned down the volume and the inane babble of pilots continued in the background, laced colorfully with language that one only heard from men who flew by the seat of their pants. Navigation in these parts most often consisted of counting the number of tributaries you passed while following the main river before you turned left. "Was the flight up alright?" Jaz asked as he continued his paperwork.

David pursed his lips and nodded, "I'm not used to small planes so the turbulence kinda got me once or twice, and my height doesn't make things any easier." David winced at his words.

Jaz nodded knowingly. He scribbled something in the yellowed and dog-eared ledger and hopped off his perch and disappeared behind the raw pine counter. David heard the clink of metal, followed by a shuffle of feet being dragged on the rough-hewn floor. The sound repeated a few times before Jaz appeared from behind the counter. The mangled form of a man in the latter part of his fifties and no taller than three feet, shuffled towards the front door. He looked like a child born of Paul Bunyan and Yoda, clad in red flannel, suspenders and blue jeans rolled several times to reveal black orthopedic shoes. He clanked forward on aluminum canes and pulled his feet behind him. David couldn't remember if it was called dwarfism.

Far to the left side of the counter, Sabrina milled around the common area of the small lodge, filled with old furniture of roughly carved logs. A myriad of dead animals hung from the walls in menacing poses that they likely never made while alive. Pictures of triumphant hunters crouching next to their unfortunate prey hung in the spaces not filled by a taxidermist. A small, dying fire still flickered in a fireplace against the far wall, built from river stones, and blackened by years of soot. Beyond that were several picnic tables arranged around a large rectangular room. A swinging door on the far side of the room told her where the kitchen was. The roof of the 'dining room' appeared to be supported by a large, bare log extending upwards from the center of the floor.

She heard the clanking shuffle behind her. She turned to look as Jaz opened the door and scooted out on to the porch. She saw her husband step away from the counter grinning and jingling the keys at her. She followed him out to the door.

A warm breeze had started up since they had entered the lodge. Sabrina looked up at David as she hooked her arm around his, "I thought Pete said we were going to need warmer clothes. But hasn't it gotten warmer?" David grunted and nodded, looking at the tall clouds hugging the mountain peak that towered above a row of cabins.

Jaz's gruff voice carried over the breeze, "It's called a Chinook. A storm coming over the mountain gets stuck. Rains like a bitch on the other side, but all we get is the warm dry air pouring down the hill." His brown haired comb-over was greased down so tightly that it didn't budge in the increasing wind. "Sometimes they get so strong that it sound like Hell and all her armies are riding down the hill at you and quicker than you can say 'Hail Mary', it'll stop."

David and Sabrina watched the thunderclouds clashing against the weathered and weary peak. Jaz shifted his weight on to one cane and pointed to the blunted point of the mountain with the other, "You can see at the edge of the trees near the top of the mountain how it's turned brown." The couple nodded. "That's called the 'red line'. It's where the Chinooks have killed off the vegetation. Most of the mountain peaks around here have them."

It had grown deceptively dark outside. The storms to the west acted like a shade that blocked out the late afternoon sun, but the sapphire blue sky above them remained undisturbed. Sabrina snuggled against her husband, "It's pretty here."

"Yeah," David replied with equal appreciation, "I'm glad you talked me into coming." He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close. He kissed the top of her head, breathing in the scent of jasmine in her hair.

Jaz almost snapped his neck reeling around as quick as he did. "She brought you here?"

They both nodded.

"Sorry, perhaps you didn't hear my question." He repeated, "She, Miss Victoria's Secret, brought you, Mr. Stihl Chainsaw, here?"

"Yep," Sabrina said with a musical laugh, "so hard to believe?"

Jaz shook his head and scooted back through the office door, "You two are a pair. I'll tell you that." He pushed it hard with his cane to shut it but remembered something. As quick as he could, he shoved the tip of his cane between the door and jamb and it bounced back with a shudder. "I'm sorry folks, I forgot to mention a few things." He hobbled back into the doorway. "We do have wild animals around here that search for food, so we don't recommend leaving anything out that might attract them. That could include food or dirty clothes. You can pretty much count on hearing them scratching around at night anyway. We also eat dinner at seven o'clock. We have two other couples and a four man hunting party that's up here for grizzlies, so you won't be eating alone."

Sabrina flipped her hair over her shoulder, "Do we need to dress for dinner, Jaz?"

The little man chuckled, "Well sweetheart, I'm sure no one would mind if you showed up naked, but you should probably wear something anyway."

David grinned broadly and Sabrina's face and neck turned a deep crimson as Jaz continued, "To answer the question I'm sure you meant to ask, no. We dress comfortably for dinner because it's too hard to run away from a moose when you're wearing high heels."

"Jaz," David asked, "our cabin is up this path, right?" He pointed along a path that ran south along the western edge of the lake, straight off the porch of the lodge and passed in front of the pier they had walked off of less than twenty minutes ago.

"Yep," he replied with a nod in the direction David pointed, "down that way a good stone's throw and you'll come to fork. Stay right and it's up the hill beyond a stand of trees."

David and Sabrina stepped off the small porch and onto the dirt path. David wrapped his muscled arm around his petite wife and pulled her close. They strolled quietly for a few minutes, in no hurry. They drank in the foreign country surrounding them. The rich and robust green of the trees and the explosion of reds, yellows and blues in the wild flowers reminded them how harried they had become. Neither of them could remember the last time they had stopped to smell a flower or notice any color other than the lifeless grey of the concrete jungle back home.

St. Louis wasn't all bad. The sea of red that exploded with the start of baseball season always brought some life to the city and the downtown area had undergone a drastic revitalization in recent years. But the fact remained that the purity of places like Hallo Bay would never be found again on any stretch of Market Street.

The trumpeting of a bull elk somewhere in the distance was music to their ears. Though it was a song they'd never heard, they somehow knew it was perfect and complete. It was a song sung by a creature of instinct, driven purely by the need to survive. David thought to himself as they walked that places like this were the last havens from the artificial world they were used to. There was no fast food up here. No traffic lights, polyester, techno music, internet or SportsCenter dared to sully this land. Life followed its own order without interference. He felt himself becoming part of the cycle again, a feeling he'd long forgotten.

He looked at the well worn foot-path and saw the trademarks of many animals. Some he thought he recognized and even tried to name. His mind wandered through the days of his youth spent in the Arkansas foothills. Endless summer days in Baxter County, dodging cops that smelled of barbequed bologna and hunting rabbit and the occasional fox, seemed so far away.

"Babe," Sabrina asked after a long silence, "what are you thinking?"

"Oh, I don't know," He mused, "Just remembering when I would go camping as a kid at Lake Norfork. This kinda reminds me of that."

"Does it really? I was hoping you'd like it here." It had been so long since he been out of doors. He used to be the active type, but had settled down after meeting her. She wasn't a homebody, but preferred more 'civilized' activities. He never complained about the change in his life, but Sabrina knew that he'd given up a very important part of himself when he'd met her. As they walked along, she was starting to understand the joy that he took being away from the city.

They followed the path as it veered right and started a long ascent towards a thick grove of evergreens. The quiet shuffle of their feet on the bare soil became imperceptible as they passed the threshold of their forest retreat and trod upon the dense cushion of pine needles. The path disappeared before them except for the vague indentation of foot traffic and the inconspicuous parting of trees. The only testimony of the ongoing Chinook was the swaying of trees in time to some unseen homage to the yet unadulterated earth. All other sounds faded into forgotten whispers as they walked another thirty yards into the trees. Suddenly, as if giving birth, the trees parted and revealed the cabin that would be the Sanford's home for the next fourteen days.

It was small, only four rooms if you counted the kitchen and living room separately. It, like everything else in this part of Alaska was assembled from carved logs, pulled right from the abundant forest that surrounded the valley. The covered porch suspended a two seat swing and was adorned with several animals carved right out of the wood. To the south end of the porch was a pile of split and dried wood for fire. Though they had the benefit of electricity, heat was still the old-fashioned variety.

David's heavy boots thumped loudly as he climbed the three steps up on to the porch. He stuck the key out from the yellow key ring to put it in the lock but paused. Something about the door didn't look right and it took him a few moments to determine that the door was not closed tight against the jamb. He flipped the key back into his palm and dropped it in his hip pocket. Sabrina hopped up the steps behind him and he held his hand out, motioning her to stop.

"David," he waved his hand to quiet her. "Is something wrong?" Her last few words escaped as a whisper. David looked back at her and motioned for her stay put. He pushed the door open without turning the handle and stepped quietly inside. There weren't too many places to look.

Sabrina stood on the porch, waiting tensely as she heard her husband step around the cabin as lightly as a two hundred pound man could.

David shrugged his shoulders as he came back out on the porch. With a sheepish grin, he said, "I guess when they brought the bags up, they just didn't close the door all the way."

David held his arms out in the general shape of a cradle, "Madam?"

"Why thank you kind sir!" Sabrina said with a little giggle. She wrapped her arms around his neck and hopped into his waiting arms. He bounced her once playfully and stepped through the door, kicking it shut with his heel as he passed. He put her back on her feet, but she kept her arms wrapped around his neck and pulled him down for a kiss.

"You know," she said with a dreamy lilt, "it's only four o'clock. Dinner isn't for another three hours."

David lifted his eyebrow, "Why Mrs. Sanford, you don't waste time, do you?" He was pushing her backwards through the bedroom door and towards the bed. His hands had already found the snap of her shorts.

"Well, we have no TV and three hours to entertain ourselves," she said, pulling at the buttons on his flannel shirt. David was already pushing her shorts down and she almost tripped on them. She kicked them away and David lifted her effortlessly off the floor. She wrapped her slender legs around his hips and they fell on the bed, furiously kissing each other. The goose down mattress accepted them like an old friend but the wrought iron frame groaned loudly at the sudden weight.

David and Sabrina rolled around in the welcoming mattress, rediscovering a passion long left untended. The fading embers of sensuality that had once been a memory of days long past, exacerbated by careers and forgotten joys, exploded in to a raging inferno. A long time later, they lay together, silently. They held each other and were content in being.

The sun had nearly set and the dense trees stood guard against the remaining sun, casting the cabin into nearly total darkness. David and Sabrina got up to clean themselves and dressed. The light from a single bedside lamp was all that illuminated the interior of their retreat, and offering little more than a warm glow to the trees outside.

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