It was too cold to use the tree house in winter so on a brilliant fall afternoon she was closing it up for the season, always a sad occasion. The bedding had already been folded and neatly piled in the center of the four-poster that now looked forlorn and abandoned. She had turned to the curtains billowing over her head dancing in the sun on a wind that was too warm, too inviting for this time of year. After several jumps she had managed to grab one streaming panel but as she pulled it down she became wrapped in its silky embrace, which was firm yet smooth like the feel of skin on skin. Immediately she remembered him at this exact spot in July. When he had held her and then picked her up and carried her to the bed. Why did winter have to come?
An hour later the floor had been swept and almost everything had been brought downstairs except for one large basket neatly stowed under the bed. Content, she stood at the center of the upper room in a shaft of sunlight waving her arms -- as though leading an orchestra-- surrounded by scores of dancing dust motes and lost in reverie. And she laughed out loud as the dust motes spun away wondering if the tiny watched her when she was with him. After one final but cursory glance she picked up the small brass key from the table and placed it in her jacket pocket and started down the circular stairs. By rights she should have placed the key under the rock at the foot of the gnarled tree, just as they always did. Perhaps she forgot or perhaps she thought she would need it before the snow came.
Three months had passed and winter was hard upon the poor tree house and the trees that protected it. Every leaf had been stripped from every branch by the winds of late fall. The tree trunks meant to guard the tree house now seemed impossibly lean in their shorn and blanched state, and their slender branches were almost invisible against a gray sky and a bleached landscape. The fields had been harvested months ago and on this early winter morning they lay still and frozen under the frigid sky thick with snow. The storm had arrived early yesterday, sweeping through the vacated fields and throwing itself against the chain of mountains that sat along the horizon.
During summer evenings, when the heat was such that even the tree house provided no relief, they sometimes pitched an old canvas tent at the foot of this chain of mountains. Inside the tent they always had a small table surrounded by piles of pillows and a small silver tea pot on a brazier, and a stack of cups that was always kept clean and waiting to be filled. It was Kate who said that you could see the sun through one opening of the tent and the moon and stars through the other. But that was in the summer. There was no place for a tent in the winter. The mountains were a frozen and dead place in winter.
Gil had flown in last night on the heels of the first explosion of snow and just prior to the airport’s closure. This morning at first light, after renting a pickup with a front end plow, he made his way to the narrow dirt road that led down to the grove of trees surrounding the tree house. Snow crunched along the underbelly of the truck as it rattled down the lane, the cab swaying to and fro as it negotiated hillocks of ice and the occasional enormous hole. At the edge of a clearing he stopped the truck. There, the familiar clump of trees to the left, and the small trio on the right and dead ahead, the large old tree that held up the house. The white wave of snow has obliterated any sense of a path. Muttering epithets under his breath Gil slammed the cab door and trudged through the deep snow until he reached the foot of the central tree and began the laborious process of searching for the rock that hid the house key. Many shuffled kicks later he gave up and plunged his bare hand into the snow to feel for large rocks. Is it this one? No, that one? Frozen fingers ensued; stone after stone was tossed until the proper rock was located. But the familiar indentation under it was empty, only a slight frozen impression of a key remained. In disgust he stamped around the base of the tree to the curved door and tried the handle. Locked and frozen by the cold. He pushed against the door several times and then resorted to shoving his shoulder repeatedly against it until it gave way with a crack. The entrance way was stone black and dank with moldy cold. He felt along the mud floor for the lantern and matches. Then a flash and a small circle of pale light illuminated the walls. He climbed the winding staircase, emerging on a room lit by the ghostly white reflection of the snow.
His breath steamed out in front of him as he set flickering lantern down and made a quick rotation of the room: table, bureau, old tub and the four posted bed. All appeared as they should. Then he spotted it: a large overstuffed basket hiding under the bed and easy to be missed. He pulled the lantern off the table and set it on the floor next to the basket and sat down, going quickly through the basket’s contents: trousers, shirts, sweaters, wool blanket, sheets, heavy socks, undergarments including several panties. Everything was neatly folded as though the basket had just been dropped off and was awaiting the ministrations of its mistress who would gently lift and place each thing precisely where it belonged. Ah, but it seemed an insufficient supply for any winter visitation to the tree house, even a short one. There should be comforters at least, and mittens and hats and boots and jackets, perhaps a sleeping bag. And food. At a minimum some fruit and nuts, some bread and perhaps some wine and even cheese. He knew her appetites well. He checked under the bed for additional supplies. There were none.
He was here by anxious invitation. Someone had called. Phone calls hadn’t been returned; messages had gone unanswered for several days. It was time for him to be told. Gil expelled a frustrated sigh. Why a wait of several days! What the hell were they thinking? Sitting in a plane high over Kansas he had struggled to remember each word said and their cadence as if by doing so he might be able to discern some greater truth behind the pauses and the subtle emphasis on one word but not on another. Because when shocking things happen, everything becomes startlingly clear – as do crystals held up to the light-- but also less comprehensible. We see, we hear, but we can’t make sense. More than once during the flight he felt chained to the seat, a prisoner helplessly floating in time. And more than once the stewardess bent her head towards his and asked, “Can I get you something, sir?”
A blast of wind pummeled the windowless side of the house and the wooden structure groaned in response. He was up on his feet immediately, inspecting each supporting beam, looking for anything loose or off kilter. The tree house had been constructed a number of years ago, and though it was carefully built of sturdy timbers, it was still nothing more than a pile of wood held in the embrace of tree branches, as close to nature as one could get without being exposed to the elements. What might blizzard force winds do to this structure he wondered, and decided he was not interested in finding out. What he wanted was to find her, and soon. He remembered an old pair of binoculars stowed in the bottom drawer of the bureau and pulling them out he began scanning the horizon, but it was like closely examining a dense white veil, no depth of vision was possible. It occurred to him that it was close to mid-day, the brightest possible portion of the day. In several hours the light would fade and it would be even harder to make out anything.
He began to pace. Who could he call for help? For a multitude of reasons, it would work best that the number of those made aware of the situation be kept to an absolute minimum. Because he was loathe to bring the flames of notoriety near, and because of who Kate was and the hurt that would be inflected on someone who was innocent. He made two complete revolutions of the room until his eye caught sight of the basket again. This time he lifted it onto the bed and folding his legs Indian-style he carefully sorted through each piece of clothing, spreading them out carefully. What might someone think, to see a grown man gently laying garments out across his legs, smoothing them free of wrinkles? Would they assume he was searching for something that could only be found by close inspection? Or would it occur to them that this was a man was lost in reverie, remembering when she had last worn this shirt or that sweater? At the bottom of the basket there were a number of silk panties. He was rummaging through these when he spotted the corner of a folded piece of paper. Unfolding it quickly he pressed it flat against his thigh -- her handwriting. It was a list of supplies, everything a person might need to set up a camp. And a phone number scribbled sideways on the page's margin.
The basket and its contents were left sprawled on the bed as he headed down the stairs, taking two steps at a time. The cab door flew open. There was a radio phone in the truck. His hands shook as he dialed the number. Woody Creek. The stable where she kept her horses, the one with the high barn where he had once chased her round and round until he caught her – hay all over the two of them.
The drive to the stable took forty minutes. The horseman remembered him well. “Yes, she took the Paso Fino two days ago, before the storm.” The horseman hit the desk with his fist and shook his head in embarrassment, mumbling something about making a trip into the foothills. “I assumed,” he began, his face red. He shook his head again and immediately offered a horse and a guide as well, because the snow showed no sign of abating. He glanced over at Gil’s fine leather jacket and offered whatever he had -- water proof jackets, pants and decent work boots, along with heavy chaps and ponchos.
Gil changed in an unheated room standing barefoot on a cement floor littered with old hay, full of memories about the last time they were here together. Meanwhile a stable hand readied the horse with a good supply of food, ropes and heavy tarps. The guide was a small dark man with leathery skin and he was intently adjusting a leather girth on a sturdy looking Appaloosa when Gil emerged from the cold dressing room.
“This is Tamosa, the best guide I have,” said the stable owner, “his family has lived in these mountains for generations and there isn’t a trail he doesn’t know. He is a precise and calm man, very quiet, ” the horseman added, “and expert at tracking both animals and men.”
The guide glanced up, patted his horse, stood and extended his hand to Gil. His eyes sparkled. If he recognized him, he gave no sign of it. Perhaps the horseman had explained, perhaps not. Tamosa said nothing, offering a tip of his head as his only acknowledgement.
Even in blowing snow they made good progress for the next two hours. The horses were sure footed in spite of the rising elevation. Tamosa was everything the stable owner promised. He knew the location of every trail in and out of the region, where there would be clean water and the most likely places of finding shelter. By early afternoon they reached the moderate sized river that skirts the edge of the mountainous region. The rolling hills were behind them and much further back, the shorn fields and the tree house. Here the trail divided. Tamosa explained that one trail would begin to climb, winding its way ever higher until all trees and brush were left behind and only walls of stone and boulders remained. The other trail meandered back and forth across the river for many miles, always linking to trails that climbed steeply into the mountains. With a clipped nod Tamosa turned his horse onto the river trail. They rode in silence for another hour.