The cold air hurts your lungs but you breathe it anyway. A deep breath for every step. Your thighs ache as you again lean into the rope and struggle to pull. Just one more foot. Almost there, almost to the crest of the ridge, you keep telling yourself it will all be downhill from there.
John would have come back with you to help but you weren’t going to leave him there. Not alone on the mountainside. It wouldn’t be right. You had looked to long, searched and planned too hard to abandon him. He deserved your effort and he was now your responsibility. You pulled harder. He followed.
You go to one knee at the crest of the ridge. With the electric red at your back and the full moon overhead you look down in the little valley. You can barely make out the smoke climbing from the chimney and trailing off down along the creek. Hanging like a spirit just above the trees. The door to the cabin is open and the glow from the fire illuminates John as he stands leaning against the door jam. You imagine he is holding a hot cup of coffee and wondering why you are late. If you called, you think he would come. He is and he would. You stay silent.
You feel a chill. Sitting back on your heels you look down at the buck. His hide is dark but his antlers seem to glow in the moonlight. You reach out and place your still trembling hand on his chest. His hair is soft and he is still warm. It calms you. You press deep and imagine the beating heart you fought so hard to stop. His spirit was strong and it has given you strength.
You thirst, you hunger and you yearn for the fireside to warm and to tell your story. His protein will nourish your family. His hide will make your moccasins. His memory will keep you young. But there is no rush, that all can wait. Your hand on the buck, his fur between your fingers and your heart in your throat you do the only thing you can. The only thing that seems right.
Sit alone at his side for just a bit longer.