We’ve been wandering for days, following old trails into the mountains. My boy beside me struggles to keep up, but he never lags for long. Maybe another day or two of walking is all. I’ve been with this group for ages. We’re a family now. I can tell you their footsteps, their snores. Their smells. We’re a small group: some girls and our babies along with the one we call Old Soldier. He keeps us going, keeps us safe. We need to make it to a water source. We need higher ground. We need to stop pushing the month old babies up and down the hillsides. It’s hard to watch them play and know the thirst that’ll come cover us, the invasions we’ll be risking if we don’t keep moving.
We left our usual territory last week. Sunday knows the trail, so we follow her. She’s only a few days from having her own baby. Sunday’s been a pathfinder at least thirteen years. She’ll get us there. Old ones have ways. Sunday and Old Soldier are some of the oldest I’ve met.
We’re ready for anything, keeping our ears pricked for trouble. The closer we get to the meeting place, the only place with enough water for a bath this time of year, more likely we are to meet an enemy. Everyone’s an enemy.
Brush snags at my heels as we crest another ridge. Over Sunday’s back, mountains soar, reaching for the clouds. Down this side then one more uphill slog. We’ll be there in no time. I can feel the cooling breeze already, and it excites my bones. I can do this. I’ll make it. If we’re lucky, we’ll be the first one’s there. We can melt the snow in our mouths and cool our ankles in the water. I half close my eyes, imagining a bath.
From the peak, we head down. Old Soldier leaves rear guard and paces up the line. Dust shoots out from below him as he descends fast. It’s hard to tell if he can’t stop himself or if he wants to be the first one out of the trees. We catch up in a few minutes. I keep my little boy close to me, waiting for the signal to move out from cover.
Abruptly, Sunday enters the sunlight. With nothing more than a twitch, she signals the Old Soldier. He pulls away from the group. Tells us to keep going, though we hear thunder in the distance that might be a storm, but it might be a helicopter. Heads down, we comply.
With the Old Soldier at her side, Sunday moves slowly into the valley. Soldier stops. He reassures us each with a touch to the shoulder. Then he ranges behind our group again.
The scent of water is in there air. I speed up, passing Sunday. She gives me a swat. I’ve overstepped my place. We can lose the way with all the paths we find at the top. I lower my head, no reason to make eye contact. I’ve lost my position. Now I’m right in front of the old Soldier on our way up the hill. It means I’ll be the last to drink. I lick my lips, thinking of the water ahead.
When we get there, it’s not water. The smell came off a small snow pile, deep under a cliff. Things must be bad that we could smell it from the other side of the valley. I’m just glad for the refreshment. We give Old Soldier the best position at the snow. It’s the only water source between our old home and the gathering spot. Everything else we’ve had was morning dew or came from fruits we found.
Everyone’s relaxed now that we’ve had a break. There’s not a lot of space on this side of the mountain. I guess that’s why the water pooled here. From the tracks, I can see tracks a lot of animals have been through lately. Some big cat prints catch my eye. It might not be safe to stay the night. Sunday and Old Soldier must have been thinking the same thing.
Sunday’s stomach heaves, but she leads us up the hill. We’ll be on top of the plateau tomorrow. That’ll give us a real rest. From what I remember, there are nice places to find berries and some soft grass up there so we can rest. Even if we keep moving at the top, we’ll have a comfortable night’s sleep when we do stop.