He continued on the approximately southwest course and found the going smooth.
The trees seemed to grow taller, and spread their branches wider, and farther above the floor of the forest, paving a wide path of pine needles and cones only lightly dusted by the snow.
The sun had disappeared behind a high-flying cloud bank, and only occasionally glimmered in the tops of the trees.
A mile, and Joshua strolled on, curious of Ebenezer's whereabouts, but not concerned.
Striking out on his own was not unusual for the husky, although he normally didn't range quite this far from his owner without circling back to check on his progress.
He found himself walking along and slightly on the side of a long ridge that appeared to run roughly south and north, the higher end of the ridge lying to the south, the direction he now took.
Skirting an occasional outcropping of rock bursting from the spine of the ridge, he became set on reaching the top, and his pace took on more purpose.
As is the case with climbing a mountain, several times he assumed to be approaching its peak, only to reach the horizon, and find a short plane of level ground, followed by yet another stretch of increasingly steep terrain.
At length, he started up a concave incline, a steep ramp that ran into an enormous bluff of craggy rock. The closer he came to the bluff, the more precipitous the climbing grew.
A rimrock crowned the top of the hill, like the rough gates to a lofty city, and the sight beckoned to curiosity.
To his left, he picked out a small niche in the stony stockade and strode quickly up the ever-steepening grade. At the foot of the rough staircase supplied by a series of small outcroppings and crevices was a small weather-worn patch of earth that bore a barely distinguishable paw print that corresponded with white scratch marks on the soft stone.
The climb was easy, not more than nine feet. He eased up, cautiously.
The view was startling.
In the center of a circular plateau, surrounded by a sprinkling of alien dormant flowers, two wooden slabs squatted, harsh and gothic in the surrounding beauty.
Two grave markers, rounded on top.
He pulled himself the rest of the way up and sat upon the rimrock, looking around slowly, taking in the drama of the picture in front of him.
The surrounding rimrock protruded an average of two feet around the entire perimeter of the plateau, semicircling the tiny cemetery like a fence. Directly behind the markers, a sheer face of flint reared up and back, rising forty feet or more before crumbling into boulders and young, determined pine trees.
The plateau stretched about one hundred yards in diameter, oval-shaped.
The wooden grave markers stood close to the rock face.
He was very still, afraid to breathe, and not daring to disturb the blanket of snow that rested lightly on the on the sleeping flowers and clustered like a nightcap on the curved tops, an unbroken seal of solitude.
A childishly morbid sense of delight and awe hung over Joshua, and his writer's soul staggered in every direction, drunk with the potential, yet reverence of mystery forbade his imagination to wander too far.
He looked closer, searching for an inscription on the markers. Ninety yards spanned the distance from himself to the graves, so, after consideration, he stood and began slowly working his way around the rimrock, still unwilling to break the snowy seal, but curious, very curious.
He stopped suddenly, remembering Ebenezer.
There were no tracks in the snow, in the middle of the plateau, or on the rimrock.
Intuitively, it made no sense. From all appearances below the rimrock, the dog had made his way up the same way Joshua had. And it was absurd to think that a dog, wandering in the woods, presented with two foreign objects, would ignore them.
He moved on now, distracted, but still curious of the inscriptions.
Ten more paces told the tale, and a strange one it was.
One marker bore an inscription, the other did not.
They were smooth-surfaced, but unfinished. They looked like they had been hewn from a door with a handsaw. The inscription was faint. Deep, patient scratches in the wood spelled out two words, a Christian name and a surname, indistinguishable because of the flecks of snow that rested in the shallow grooves.
No dates, no epitaph.
The enigma began to weigh in on him slightly. Joshua spent so much time alone that the existence of other humans in this wilderness was a jarring realization. Less disturbing was the fact that two of these humans had died, and fairly recently, judging from the look of the wood.
It was mostly gray, but still streaked with brown.
A breeze brushed coldly by him, bearing the faintly acrid smell of snow and pine.
He stifled an involuntary shudder, hunching his shoulders and shoving his hands deep in his pockets.