This article as been generously contributed by Michael Ulanski at The Prepper Project and is a continuation of the highly rated Aftermath web series.
You can read the previous episodes here:
Episode 4: Losing Ground
By Michael Ulanski (The Prepper Project)
“Follow me in for a short while, and then hide Cathy and Yourself off the trail.” Jason was on his feet and speaking rapidly to his wife. Three Shots, Jason thought, that’s a call for help. I won’t be the only one who heard them. He moved quickly, lifting his pack and re-checking that the bolt of his rifle was clear of debris.
“Those are my sons,” Patricia said, “If you think I’m not going to their side when they need me, then you’re-”
“What if there are unfriendlies?” Jason cut her off, and she met him with a cold stare. She understood the need for splitting up, but it she sure didn’t like it.
They moved quickly along the trail. Patricia pulled the wagon as carefully as she could while keeping pace. She hoped the bumpy trail wouldn’t wake Cathy who had slept through the distant shots. Jason pushed ahead of his wife, moving with quick precision, making wide sweeping arcs along both sides of the path with the barrel of his rifle. They didn’t speak. Patricia kept her eyes on her husband, waiting for any sign or command, ready to take action. Suddenly, he stopped. Patty felt every nerve in her body tense up. She held her ground and thought about reaching for the pistol strapped to her ankle, but decided to wait for Jason’s orders. He motioned for her to join him, and leaving the wagon back a few yards, she crept up to him.
“This should work just fine,” he said, pointing to a small clearing guarded by high bushes at the split in the trail. Patricia tried again with her eyes to convince Jason not to leave her behind. Instead, he gave instructions and took off in the direction he thought the boys would be. Patricia pulled the wagon off the trail and into the small, natural blind. Cathy fussed a bit, and even opened her eyes, but with Patty’s urging, fell back to sleep.
“We’ve prepped,” Patricia whispered into the silence of the clearing, “we are ready for anything.” All day she had been reminding herself about the work they’d put into prepping, it helped her stay calm. It was getting dark. The evening sun was setting now, somewhere behind the thick soup of stormy grey clouds it had been illuminating all afternoon. As night came, and the trees around her became silhouettes, and then joined the indiscernible darkness of the forest, Patricia had to remind herself more and more that everything was going to be okay.
Jason had found the boys just as the last useful light was fading from the sky.
“Where’s Dale!?” Jason shouted, keeping his rifle trained on their perimeter.
“Dad!” Jim shouted. He was laying on his stomach, facing away from his father along the edge of the ravine that dropped into the creek.
“Where’s Dale?” Jason asked again, moving closer to Jim then kneeling with his gun still poised. “Are there unfriendlies, are you hurt, is there an immediate threat, who fired the shots?” The questions came fast and out of control, Jason had forgotten their family code words. Jim was still quiet, and Jason shifted his focus to the boys face. There were tears crawling down his cheeks and his complexion was whiter than ghost.
“Son, it’s okay, I’m here now, take a deep breath,” Jason said, as calmly as he could. Jim stared back at his dad and fought to calm his nerves.
“Now listen carefully Jim, do you remember the codes?”
Jim nodded his head.
“Good,” Jason continued, “Were there any bullies at school today?”
“No, school went great today,” Jim said softly. Jason realized that they’d need to make a new set of codes. Most of the ones they had dealt with how the school day went, which stuck out like a sore thumb out there in the woods. Jim just told his dad that there weren’t any unfriendlies. The codes seemed to be helping his son respond, it was clear the boy was in shock, but the codes were familiar and practiced.
“Why did the fire alarm go off?” Jason asked, continuing the code.
“I pulled the alarm, but only because we needed the principal,” Jim replied. Good, Jim fired, and it was only to signal for help.
“Did the whole class get out okay?”
Jim was silent and Jason asked again, “Did the whole class get out okay, Jim?”
Jim looked at his father through the darkness that had settled between them now and whispered, “No.”
“Where is he?” Jason demanded, dropping the code.
“Down there.” Jim said, and clicked on his flashlight. The beam cut through the darkness and disappeared behind the edge of the cliff that Jim was laying up against. Jason shot forward towards where his son lay pointing.
“No!” Jim burst out. He shined the light into his dad’s face, stopping him in his tracks.
“It was a landslide.” Jim said, he seemed to be coming back now, “I’m afraid if I move, I’ll fall too.”
“Just stay there,” Jason said, “and turn that light out.” He retrieved his Night Owl Optics night vision goggles from his bug out bag and strapped them on. Jason flipped the switch and the scene lit up before him in shades of glowing green light. Jim was laying at the edge of the trail, holding onto a small tree whose trunk leaned out over the ravine. The boys had made it all the way to the creek that ran right through the ravine 15 feet below. The trail a few feet to Jim’s left was carved away unevenly. Dale must have been standing there when the landslide happened, Jason thought. It wasn’t a far drop, but it ended on the boulders and rock bed of the creek. Jason tried to keep his mind focused. Secure an anchor line, get Jim off the edge, Go get Dale… but panicked thoughts kept interrupting. All that extra weight of the pack… if he landed headfirst?
Jason wound his anchor line around a heavy set Red Oak tree several yards from the edge. It was a loop of rope, attached by a climbing carabiner using a figure eight knot. Jason fastened a rescue line to the carabiner using a clove hitch and a harness around himself by looping the rope under his arms and fastening the line to itself with a Prusik knot.
“Yea Dad,” Jim’s voice was almost back to normal.
“I’m going to pull you away from the edge.”
“Okay.” Jim said after a long pause, then added, “Dale hasn’t moved since he fell.”
“Let’s just get you safe first.” Jason, seeing in the green glow of the night vision, crawled out to the edge where his son still lied face down.
“He’s right down there.” Jim said, pointing. Jason strained his neck to see. Wedged between two large rocks, half buried in mud his oldest son Dale laid wet and motionless at the bottom of the small cliff side. His pack was still strapped to his back and his right leg shot out from beneath him at an impossible angle.
Definitely broken, Jason thought, staring down at his son, if he’s even alive. He scolded himself, you can’t afford to think like that, not yet. He loosened the loop of rope around his chest so that he and Jim fit within it, and they crawled slowly back from the edge.
“You’re mother’s hiding out by the split in the trail.” Jason was already tying another harness, into the rope he pulled from Jim’s Bug-out Bag. “Go, bring her here, to where I’ve anchored the line to this tree. Tell her we’re going to need a splint, and help her find a good branch to fashion one.” Jason was coiling the rescue line into large loops. Jim looked back at his dad, still looking a bit stunned.
“Did you hear me?”
“Don’t tell her anything specific, just tell her I need her here and that I’m helping Dale.” He looked at his son’s scared face and added, “Tell her Dale’s going to be perfectly fine once we help him.”
Jim was off and Jason edged backwards towards the cliff. The soil was loose beneath his feet and small pebbles careened downward. He found his footing along the edge where the land had loosed from its hold and tumbled down into the ravine, carrying Dale and everything else with it. Swinging his head around, Jason took one last look at his son, bent and unmoving down below. He pulled tight on his anchor line, his own harness looped beneath his arms, and started his way down the side of the ravine. The wall of the cliff was muddy and rocky, freshly exposed from the landslide. Jason’s boots hit the ground with a thud close to where his son lay. The loose earth had settled on the rocky creek bed below, pushing its way between rocks and boulders into uneven piles of debris. Jason knelt down next to his son and working with the automatic movements of a trained combatant checked his pulse. See, he’s okay. He’s going to be okay, Jason told himself. He set to work, prepping his son to be moved. His nose was bloodied, his right leg had suffered a serious fracture, but thankfully, the bone hadn’t protruded through the skin. Keep an eye out for internal bleeding the next few days, Jason noted to himself, gently rolling Dale onto his side. Jason brought Dale’s leg back to a reasonable angle, and for the first time since he’d fallen, Dale made a noise.
“Shhhhh, it’s alright son.”
“Mmmmmaaahhh,” Dale cried out.
“You fell in the land slide, your leg’s broke, but I’m gonna get you out of here.” Jason worked steadily, first cutting the straps of this son’s pack which was still beneath him, then pulling the loop of rope over Dale’s head and shoulders and tucking it securely under his arms. Dale was laying like a turtle on his back, his arms and now both legs hanging limply out in the same direction on top of the uneven bulge of his pack. Two giant boulders framed him in, crushing down on either side.
These rocks slowed his dissent, Jason thought, but they could have just as easily broken his skull if he’d smashed into them directly. Stop thinking like that now, come on. Do the job, don’t get loose, you’ve still got to get him up the side of this damn hill. Jason’s thoughts were coming a mile a minute now. He heard his wife call out to him from the hilltop above.
“It’s fine honey, I’m just about to come up. Don’t come over to the-” Jason knew his wife well enough to know that she wouldn’t listen to that last part, not when her babies were in trouble.
“Oh my God!” she yelled, “Dale! Dale are you okay? Jason, is he okay?”
“He’s fine,” Jason was losing patience, “Get away from that damn edge, or you might be down here with us.” He hated speaking harshly to his wife, but the situation demanded everyone’s focus and there would be plenty of time for the emotions later.
“We’re on it Dad!” Jim yelled down.
“Get the wood for that splint!”
“Yes dear,” Patricia said, and Jason heard from the tone of her voice that she’d gathered herself together and that he could count on her. That’s why you love that woman isn’t it, he thought to himself. He tugged his line and prepared to ascend the cliff again. Sure, that and about a thousand other reasons, he continued to think as he climbed. Focus damn it! Exhaustion was settling in. Despite the gravity of the situation, Jason found his thoughts wandering away from the cold damp dark of his world and to fond warm memories of lying in his wife’s arms. A rock beneath Jason’s boot cut loose from the hill as he pushed his weight onto it. His footing lost, Jason swung into the dirt and rocks of the cliff side, cushioning the impact with his face. Scrambling to look down, he watched with baited breath as the rock hit just to the left of Dale’s head, and take a bounce and settle harmlessly out of the way. Jason grunted. Stop being so soft you damn fool.
When he reached the top, Jim and Patricia had already found a relatively straight and sturdy looking branch to fashion the splint. He looked back down at Dale. The line was securely under his arms, and pulled tight. It’s going to hurt like hell getting dragged up the hillside with that leg how it is, he thought, but what choice do we have? Maybe he’ll pass out from the pain again… God I hope so. Who knows who or what is out here, and if he starts screaming, they’ll know that someone is vulnerable.
Jason walked briskly over to the tree where both lines were anchored.
“Set up some lights,” he said without looking away from his hands. He untied Dale’s line from the tree, which wasn’t yet taught, and tied a loop around his waste. Jim and his mother set up a few electric lanterns in the clearing by the foot of the Red Oak.
“Alright, now, come here,” he ordered. Jim and Patricia were at his side, each taking two handfuls of rope. Using the tree like a pulley, they reeled in the rope, slowly and steadily. At first there was nothing, no noise, except for the sound of dragging and falling dirt. Then he woke again. Dale’s femur, though not breaking the skin, was pressing a jagged boney edge against the main nerve in his thigh. Each time they pulled, the edge of his broken bone cut into the nerve. The pain was unbearable, and forced itself out in primal screams that echoed down the ravine in all directions. That’s a tough boy, and I’ve never known him to howl like that, Jason thought, that leg must be really bad off… I hope we can set it well, or he may never walk right again. Jason grunted and pulled hard against the weight of his teenage son hanging over the cliff side. Everyone strained, hand over hand, in unison, to Patricia’s whispered cadence, “And pull,” a breath and hold, “Pull… pull…”
Not now buddy-not now-stay focused, he’ll walk just fine, and if not, we’ll figure it out. Jason was speaking to himself again, keep pulling in the line buddy, keep pulling the line. A few feet from the top, Dale’s screaming stopped completely. When his limp body appeared from over the edge, Patricia looked over her shoulder and a small gasp escaped her lips. His face was cut, his whole body was muddy and brown with wide crusty red patches of dried blood. His leg dragged in a way that churned her stomach, even though it was straight down from his waist now. It somehow seemed unattached, or unnatural in the way it bobbed along freely when they pulled. She swallowed down the lump in her throat and took a deep breath to focus her mind. They dragged him into the light of the electric lanterns, and instantly She was over him, checking his vitals and touching her hands to his face.
“Honey, can you hear me?” Patty’s voice was barely keeping stable. She tried again, patting his face gently and holding his wrist between her fingers and thumb, “Dale baby, can you hear me?”
Jim watched as his parents swarmed his brother’s motionless body, fighting an overwhelming urge to sob openly. Even so, a few tears were carving wet paths through the dried dirt on his cheeks. He slowly backed away four of them, Cathy fidgeted and whimpered in the wagon next to his mother. His parents had begun splinting Dale’s leg and were forcing him to drink small gulps of water. He had woken up again, but was able to keep the screaming to a low grown that would only erupt now and again when the ropes of the splint were tightened.
“It’s all my fault,” Jim whispered, and more silent tears found there way out from his eyes. He was a few yards away from the clearing where his brother lay moaning. The path took a sharp turn there, and he stopped backing up when his feet felt the edge of the trail. He wiped the tears from his eyes, and took a hard bracing breath. “Get it together!” He whispered loudly, “You’re useless when you get weak like this, you gotta grow up gotta man-up.” He took another heavy breath, and let it out slowly, waiting for his courage to return to him.
Somewhere to his left a branch snapped. Jim turned his head and peered into the dark woods. With the heavy clouds in the sky blocking the moon and stars, the only light was coming from the lanterns his parents were using, and he was far out of the reach of those lights. Deciding to stop letting his fears get the best of him, Jim took a few slow, steps off the path, ducking into the darkness to where he thought the sound had come from. He pulled the hunting knife from its leg strap, and held it tip down in his lead hand. He reached a small clearing several yards from the path; everything was still, everything was calm, and kind of beautiful. A sense of calm settled over Jim, and he smiled allowed himself to smile a bit.
“Probably nothing,” he laughed. Then the bushes behind him rustled and snapped and Jim felt the presence of something behind him. He could hear it breathing, low and shallow and the feel of its cold hungry stare boring into the back of his skull.
Michael Ulanski is a fiction writer and freelance journalist currently traveling and working in the Middle East. Originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, he is working on a series of short stories entitled Maps of a Midwest Suburb, as well as maintaining a travel blog, and working on his first novel. He holds a masters degree in English Education and teaches writing to secondary students in the United Arab Emirates.