Elsie took a drink from her canteen and surveyed the surroundings; the craggy rock face extending upwards to her left caught the sun's setting rays and glowed pinkish-gold, while the mixed pine and deciduous forest ahead and to her right extended as far as the eye could see. She'd been here many times, but the sheer beauty of the place never wore old. The wilderness of Northwestern Maine was a paradise that had never failed to recharge her batteries since graduating from Bowdoin College four years previously.
She took another swallow and closed her eyes, basking in the silence of her environment: no traffic, no ringtones, none of the constant chatter of urbanity, even the wind had died down until the only detectable sound was provided by a distant Hermit Thrush signing its magical song. She sighed.
Two more days, she thought wistfully, then back to the grind.
She stayed there, perfectly still, letting her consciousness soak in the peace and serenity of the wilds, until eventually the setting sun finally egged her back into motion.
She came upon the blackberry bushes she'd passed earlier. She rummaged through her sack and drew forth a plastic container, deftly popping the lid with her thumb. The berries were lush and ripe: she couldn't help popping every third one into her mouth as she gathered.
Her container was halfway full when she stumbled on something that shifted under her foot, nearly causing her to spill her tiny harvest. She glanced down and frowned.
"What the Hell?"
At Elsie's feet lay a hefty red climbing axe, looking for all the world as though someone had placed it there yesterday. She picked it up and examined it curiously, noting the complete absence of rust. This was no relic from colonial times.
The longer protruding point was caked in a dark substance she couldn't identify; it certainly wasn't mud. She scratched at it with her thumbnail and observed the substance crumble off into her hand. It had a decidedly reddish hue.
Dried blood? No, it couldn't be...
Or so she hoped. If it was, it had all the makings of a murder weapon.
It was at then that she heard it.
She turned around, the rock face that lined the edge of the valley looming before her some ten feet away.
There was nothing for several moments, until...
This time she perceived the direction of the sound, turning towards the rocks slightly to her right. She took three steps toward the source and stopped in her tracks.
There, on a slight stony protrusion at about waist level, was a pool of blood, slowly trickling over the edge and down to the ground.
Elsie went cold. Swallowing hard, she slowly turned her gaze upward.
There, partly obscured by a bush growing on an overhanging ledge of the rock face, was a body, sprawled in such a way that one bloody arm dangled over the edge.
Elsie took an instinctive step back.
She was breathing heavily now; part of her wanted to turn and run and forget she'd ever witnessed anything amiss. But her rational half won out – she couldn't just turn a blind eye to this.
"Oh my God…oh my God…"
She approached the unmoving form nervously. She slowly reached up and nudged the bloody hand with the pickaxe. It swung loosely. No sign of rigor mortis. She reached up with a trembling hand and felt for a pulse. Don't be dead…don't you dare be dead, whoever you are…
It was there. Weak, but definitely there. The arm evidently belonged to a young woman by the look of it.
She allowed herself a slight breath of relief, which was quickly tempered by the realization that she had no way to treat the victim – her sister was the physician of the family, not her. Worse, her rudimentary first aid kit was at her tent a good mile away. But the girl was bleeding out.
She also had no way to climb up to reach her; the rock face was almost vertical, and while she'd tackled fairly daunting climbs before, they had been with proper equipment, none of which she had with her. She considered using the climbing axe but quickly nixed the idea – even if she got up there, she couldn't possibly get both herself and the unconscious girl back down, axe or not.
She tossed the axe a safe distance away and took a deep breath. Well there's only one thing for it…
She reached up and took a firm grasp of the girl's arm and gently pulled. Nothing.
She was worried about further injuring the girl – she could well have broken bones, maybe even spinal damage, for all she knew. But she could see no useful alternative. She pulled harder.
The girl's prone body shifted slightly, pebbles and twigs from the half crushed bush tumbling down onto Elsie's face and shoulders. She gritted her teeth and pulled again.
This time the girl's head and second arm spilled over the ledge. Elsie looked up, noting with a twist in her stomach the presence of a nasty gash on the girl's forehead near her left temple. It didn't look good. Some of the blood dripped down onto her chin. Shit!
She prepared herself for the next heave, knowing she had no real way of breaking the girl's fall other than by using her own body. This is gonna hurt…
She pulled once more, and the girl's prone form slowly slipped from the ledge. Elsie braced herself, shielding her face as well as she could as she crumpled under the girl's falling body. She hit the ground hard, getting a boot in the face for her trouble. Her tailbone throbbed in pain, but at least the girl's head had landed across Elsie's legs and not the hard ground.
She sat there for a moment, breathing hard. "Okay," she whispered to herself. "Worst is over."
The girl was an absolute mess. Blood was streaming from the gash on her forehead, her cargo pants were ripped in several locations, bloodied skin visible through the gaps in the fabric. Her khaki green tank top was dirty, torn and splattered with both fresh and dried blood. The girl's bare arms and shoulders were criss-crossed in scratches and scars, some healed, others obviously recent and some disturbingly deep. There was no way all this could have happened from a single fall, no matter how severe.
What the Hell happened to you?
She checked the girl's neck for a pulse. She sighed in relief. Okay, still with me…
She reached into her bag and pulled out her sweat band, wrapping it around the girl's scalp to cover the bleeding gash, securing it with a shoelace she salvaged from one of the girl's boots. It was a haphazard solution but would have to do for now.
But now the real problem – how to get help?
Her cell was at the tent, and she was aware there was little to no signal out this far. But her immediate problem was to stop the girl's flow of blood: the first aid kit at least had proper ointment, gauzes and bandages, but even if she double timed it to her tent, it'd be almost dark by the time she got back – and then what? There'd be no time to build a proper shelter before it got pitch dark. And she didn't like the idea of leaving a bleeding, unconscious girl in the midst of the forest, even if just for a relatively short time.
No, she'd have to bring her back. And quickly.
She got to her feet, being careful not to jar the girl's head as she slipped her legs out from under her.
She surveyed the area – there were no broken branches long or strong enough to make an adequate sled to drag the girl, and she had nothing with which to cut fresh ones. And even if she could, she had nothing to lash them together to make an effective mode of transport.
Elsie considered the girl and chewed on her lower lip. They were roughly the same size, the mystery girl maybe a fraction taller than she was, though it was hard to judge from a prone figure. She had a slim and athletic build but was decidedly curvaceous for all that. Almost an exaggeratedly perfect figure, the type one would see on photoshopped magazine covers.
How'd you manage that, damn you? Wondered Elsie, briefly losing focus on the task at hand. Even her face, caked as it was in dirt and blood, would have embarrassed many a supermodel.
A crow cawed nearby, making Elsie jump out of her stupefaction. Okay…you've got to be what, a hundred and twenty or so?
Three times the weight of her pack. She could lift her, she was at least confident of that, but carrying such a weight that distance over uneven ground was something she'd never attempted before. She stood there for several moments, considering other options. None were good.
She finally sighed resignedly. Well, she's not gonna carry herself…
Elsie retrieved the climbing axe and tied it to her belt. She reached down and took hold of the girl's arm and slowly heaved her onto her back, draping the girl's form over her shoulders like she'd been shown at first aid training back in her college days.
Cripes, she mused, slowly shifting the girl's weight back and forth until she found the proper balance. Scratch that….more like a hundred and thirty…
She took several deep breaths before heading off in the direction of her camp.
Lara's first faint, dawning awareness was of a smell: the light waft of smoke, with the hint of something cooking…fish? She lay there as she slowly became aware of her own breathing, shallow at first, but with increasing steadiness. A few moments later the muted sounds of a crackling fire permeated her consciousness, along with a muffled voice – female? Lara struggled her consciousness into being, her hand reaching out to feel a soft fabric underneath her…where was she?
She slowly opened her eyes, her vision initially blurry and details only slowly coming into focus. She was in a tiny tent, lying atop a sleeping bag, and a glow from what appeared to be dawning light seeped through the narrow opening of the tent flap. The voice she'd heard earlier from outside became more discernable now.
" – need help. I'm at GPS coord – oh, screw it."
A young woman's voice. Not one that she recognized.
Lara sat up bolt upright and immediately gasped at the wave of intense nausea that suddenly overwhelmed her. She clutched her throbbing head with both hands, barely feeling a bandage underneath her fingers through the waves of spinning clouds.
"Oh God," she panted, the nausea quickly bubbling up to the surface. Her ears began ringing as she bent forward and vomited.
Movement from the tent flap. Lara looked up dazedly in time to see the face of a young woman with dishevelled blonde hair peeking out from beneath an old baseball cap, her light grey eyes wide with surprise.
"Hey! You alri – "
But Lara had collapsed back into darkness.