A slow faucet leak that'd dripped every few minutes during summer had turned into the small glacier Sabine was now chipping through with a Philips head screwdriver. She paused to check the tip for damage; the tool was making quick work of the ice locking her out of the crawlspace but it was too valuable to damage for the sake of expediency.
With the ice weakened, Sabine secured the screwdriver in the tool roll beside her and crouched down. Bracing herself against the ground with mittened hands, she propped one foot on the tiny door jam. After a nervous glance around she tested the door, giving it a tentative nudge with her right foot. Two more hard kicks and the entire panel collapsed inward. Warm dusty air with a tinge of animal droppings rose up out of the dark hole to tickle her nose. Sudden scuffling overhead stifled the impulse to sneeze.
Scavengers in the house?---Or were they still here??
Rising panic made her take another look around.
Relax. Even if you saw something it'd already be too late.
She loosened her scarf and took slow breaths. "In.
One. Two. Three.
One. Two. Three.
She held onto this breath and sat perfectly still, straining her ears instead.
She looked to the dogs for confirmation. Nox was a few yards away curled up in his harness, still tied to the sledge she'd left concealed between two spruce trees. She couldn't help but smile at the giant mound of black fur slowly accumulating snow--not a care in the world. Swiveling her head around she spotted Bishop, front paws up on a log, scenting the air. Sabine's smile died and her heart lurched--she rolled onto her feet, but Bishop had already moved on and was casually snuffling through the snow at the base of a tree.
Twisting her flashlight to life Sabine turned back to the crawlspace.
The brief prayer felt wrong. Please what? Please let there be provisions, spare parts? Please let them have died too fast to have depleted their fall stocks? She felt a pang of guilt, memories of helping them bring in their harvest two cycles ago flitted through her mind. Sunburn and aching backs, but also laughter--there'd been so much food! When the work was over they'd eaten 'til they could barely move. The Ingalls had been generous, sending her home with more than just a helping of the harvest. There'd been jams, canned fish too--and butter! She shook her head as if to dislodge the memories. Hopefully this year's harvest had been good too. The greenhouse was empty, winterized and still intact, that was promising. That smell wasn't. She waved the flashlight's beam around and carefully stuck her head inside. Rodents had been in here.
Suddenly Bishop's great blocky head shoved its way under her arm as he tried to push and claw his way into the crawl space, "Bish, no--NO." He could smell the vermin as well. She pinned his neck against the frame of the door with her body to stop his advance, dropped the flashlight on the ground and smacked his snout with her free hand, "NO. Bad dog."
He reversed out hard. Following him, Sabine slammed the back of her head on the door frame, spitting a series of expletives on her way out. The dog flinched but was already trying to scrabble back in. Her cumbersome mittened hands failed to catch onto his harness so she settled for grabbing his entire head with both hands and turned his ghost-white face towards her, going nose to nose with the enormous hybrid. "Bishop. No. Sit."
His golden eyes rolled towards the crawl space compulsively and his nostrils flared but he sat. She let go of his face and his whole body twitched towards the opening. "Uh-uh!--Bishop! Go." she rapped her knuckles on the leather plate that armored his chest and swung an arm toward a nearby stump. "Go." The dog slunk away and hopped up on the stump, glancing back for confirmation. "Good boy, sit. Guard." Bishop planted his butt and pricked up his ears. He took his job seriously.
Turning back to the dark hole Sabine suddenly felt physically and emotionally exhausted. The extreme cold turned every mundane task into a mountain and she'd climbed half a dozen already today. She sighed and rubbed a mittened hand across the back of her head where she'd hit it but only managed to drop snow down her collar. Sucking air through gritted teeth she glanced at the sky accusingly before finally squeezing her bulky parka through the door, carefully avoiding the broken hinges that jutted out. She reclaimed her flashlight and looked around. There were wooden crates and plastic tubs towards the middle, but chewed corners verified her suspicions, the rodents had beaten her to the cache. Crawling over to the tubs, she lifted a lid. Voles shot out of the holes chewed along the bottom. Inside she found an impressive amount of insulation the industrious vermin had stolen from the house to nest in, along with grass, droppings and some dried carrot tops they had passed over in favor of the plentiful tubers. The food was gone.
She checked another tub--more droppings and partially chewed potatoes. She wasn't desperate enough to eat them, but maybe they could be quartered and planted. She up-ended the tub and packed the salvageable roots back into it.
Now she set to work dismantling what she'd really come for: copper pipes. This homestead was old--it actually had metal plumbing. None of the geodesics or DCP compounds had anything like it, they didn't even have wells; all glass condensers, pvc and printed tubing. She tried to keep the pipe sections as long as possible, but she needed to be able to conceal them. Two foot lengths at most, rolled up in burlap to keep them from clanking. Metal drew attention, especially in the compounds.
Before long she was sweating inside her parka. Packing up her tools, she pushed her haul in front of her as she made her way back out on hands and knees. Bishop was still on the stump. Good sign. She shoved the bin out the crawlspace hatch, followed by the copper bundle, a tarp and stray trowel she'd spotted behind the pressure tank.
Halfway out the door she realized only one of the hinges had been sprung when she kicked the door in, the other had come free undamaged, bits of dry rot clinging to the screws on one side. She liberated the brass hinge and thought about scouting the rest of the house for similar salvage but quickly decided against it--she knew what she'd find up there. She could steal from the dead but she didn't need them visiting her nightmares. The reality of what lay inches above her head sent a chill dread through her, exacerbated by her cooling sweat as she scrambled out of the crawlspace. She shouldn't push her luck.
Sabine's voice disappeared into the falling snow, muffled by giant conglomerate flakes drifting impossibly slowly but unrelentingly to the ground. She formed a snowball and hucked it at the mound of snow adjacent to the sledge. A pitch black snout popped up and periscoped around.
"C'mere you great lump."
The giant Newfoundlander lazily stood and stretched. Sabine threw another snowball at him. This one he caught in midair and munched. Sabine pat her thighs enthusiastically and the dog set off at a trot towards her, the reinforced plastic sledge bouncing along behind him. Sabine ruffled his ears and praised the soft-eyed dog before turning to the leaner beast that sat watching them from the stump.
"Bishop. Patrol." She swung an arm out and then drew a circle in the air. Bishop lurched off, happy to be released from guard duty to stretch his long legs. Nox meanwhile leaned so hard into Sabine they both toppled over into the snow. "Get off me you mutt!" But Sabine was giggling so the command only encouraged him and the newfy responded by rolling around and licking at her face, tangling himself in the leads to the sledge in the process.
A raven caw put an end to the frollicking, dog and master both freezing. "Up." Command voice was back and Nox was on his feet in a flash of shaggy black pelt, but he was still woefully tangled. Sabine swiftly set to work straightening out his leads and dumping the snow from the sledge.
Don't push your luck damnit.
She loaded the sledge, glancing up frequently, hoping for a reassuring glimpse of Bishop. The raven could've been nothing and she knew that Nox would defend her to his death, but not only was he tied to the sledge, his attention was always on her, monitoring her mood, waiting for the next command. His job was to pull hard and offer a soft muzzle and heavy head on her lap when she needed it. Bishop was the scout, he was the one who would know if there was trouble--and oh god; there it was. A little ways off, she heard Bishop’s tell-tale /coo/. There was no other way to describe it, a short, choked howl that didn't sound like any dog or wolf. It was always just the one and the snow made the direction indiscernible but Bishop had spotted something. He'd be on his way back. Sabine frantically threw a stained canvas tarp over the sledge and began to lash it down. Nox danced nervously and started forward.
Sabine snarled viciously at him, "STAY!"
Overwhelmed, Nox froze, then sat down too; the whites of his eyes flashing as he watched her finish securing the load.
"Shit. Tools. Shit shit shit."
Sabine dove for the tool roll she'd left near the crawlspace hatch. Just then Nox broke command and wheeled towards the corner of the house. Sabine dropped the tools and groped for the phosphorus pelter at her waist--much too slowly, the beast that came around the corner was already on her before the tools hit the ground. But it was just Bishop and he nudged her thigh, circled her once and ran past Nox, stopping dead near the stump he'd been perched on, ears pricked, tail straight out. His body was an arrow pointing towards the threat, but he wasn't growling. Sabine put a hand against the house and bent half over, allowing herself one steadying breath to try to counteract the adrenaline flooding her system. She stooped and snatched up the toolkit again before stomping through the snow after Bishop. She reached the stump and crouched down, heart still pounding.
He's not growling.
The land fell away at a steady but gentle slope, dotted with clusters of spruce, but Sabine couldn't see anything. Still staring down into the valley Sabine stroked the hackles on Bishop's back, "What do you see buddy?" He lifted his nose a fraction as if to say, "There." Sabine squinted, the falling snow was doing nothing to improve her vision, but it should also help conceal their retreat.
Movement from behind a stand of squat trees. Sabine bit a mitten and yanked it off her hand so she could unzip a pocket that held a small, battered set of binoculars. The snow still obscured the view and her hands were shaking, but she could tell the figures were human from the way they were moving. Orderly. Two of them. Plus dogs. But the dogs were in a team, pulling a laden kicksled.
Must be hunters.
Sabine relaxed visibly. Next to her, Bishop also relaxed, dropping his point and nosing her elbow. She shoved him back and raised the binoculars again. They were moving fast, roughly in the same direction she needed to be. A team could haul a dogsled and passenger much faster than she could move out with her mutt and sledge, but they'd have to slow their pace for the second man who was skimming along behind them on snowshoes.
And they'll have to climb out of the valley.
"Time to go." The dogs perked up at that. Bishop pranced towards the sledge. Sabine stowed the binoculars and unzipped her parka, reaching for an inside pocket. Excited whines greeted the wax paper wrapped bundle of smoked salmon she pulled out. "We're going to have to double time it boys. I have no intention of meeting our new 'friends'." She tossed a hunk of fish to Bishop who snapped it out of the air, all three sets of canines flashing. The salmon was precious, but she was about to ask a lot of them. Sabine chewed a few bites off a second piece before holding her hand out to Nox who delicately nibbled the remainder out of her hand but licked her palm clean before she could withdraw it. "Dude. Gross." Nox's tongue lolled out of his mouth happily--his whole body wiggling, making Sabine smile despite herself.
Repeatedly wiping her hand on slick weatherproof pants did nothing to slow the freezing effect of the drool as she unfastened her skis and poles from the sides of the sledge. She cinched the straps over the toes of her snow boots, wrapped the crude springs behind her heels and gave Nox a pet before clipping a rope from her belt to Bishop's harness and replacing her mitten. "Let's beat them to Refuge, shall we?" The dogs quivered at 'Let's'; both watching her face intently. Sabine planted her ski poles in the snow then took a long drink of water from a tube that snaked over her shoulder to a bladder tucked against her back.
God this is going to be rough.
"Let's GO!" Springing forward in unison, Bishop, Sabine, Nox and the sledge slipped single file past the homestead’s broken perimeter fence and into the forest. They disappeared within moments.
Inside the homestead Marcus Ingalls lay dying from his wounds and the cold, surrounded by the still forms of all eight members of his family.