Fate's Last Turn

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Chapter 21

Our clandestine affair took hold of us both with equal intensity and over the following period Kathleen and I got together whenever an opportunity presented itself. To begin with it was only while out exploring the mountains but with winter approaching, as the temperatures dropped through the floor, those episodes became less attractive. It was prudent to keep your kit on out there. We therefore became more patient and waited until Peter had gone out on his own, perhaps taking the pick-up into Macadam for supplies. I wasn’t sure where it was all going to lead. Sooner or later I was certain that it would end in tears but I was too weak to give her up. It was lust rather than anything deeper. I was infatuated with Kathleen and still unable to fully believe that a woman as attractive as she was could be interested in the likes of me.

It wasn’t a case of me rather than Peter, she had us both eating out of the palm of her hand. The only difference was that obviously I knew all about Peter and could handle the fact that Kathleen spent time with him. But Peter knew nothing about me and her, and I reckoned it would devastate him if he ever found out.

I don’t know why our lives still revolved around weekends as every day was just like the previous one, but I suppose the week’s structure is ingrained in us all from an early age. So our routine was for us all to finish work about lunchtime every Saturday and we didn’t work at all on Sundays. I continued to enjoy my time out in the wilderness. I was occasionally still accompanied by Kathleen but more often alone now as winter took hold and at the weekends I would pack enough provisions for the entire day into a rucksack and trek as far afield as I could go. I wouldn’t return until after dark, exhausted, cold and hungry but as happy as a sand boy.

It was one Sunday that, wrapped in my army parka as well as several other layers of warm clothing I set off on one of my more memorable expeditions into the wilderness. Peter and Kathleen planned to motor into Macadam in the pick-up and have Sunday lunch with some friends that Peter had made in the town. They were people who had known his uncle well and were now keen to get to know him. Peter thought it a good opportunity to introduce Kathleen and also to find out a little more about uncle Hank.

I was wanting to explore a bit further afield and take in some of the most dramatic scenery in the area. I had shared my thoughts to the others about my plans once visitors began staying at the Kirby place in summer. It would be another string to our bow if I could organise trips out into the wilderness either for a day’s duration or with weather permitting, an overnight camp. I had suggested that we could hire out the camping gear to the tourists as well as my services and provide food too. Everyone agreed that it had the potential to be a good earner. But first I needed to get to know the area better myself. To practice and improve my field craft and plan out some routes that would justify people hiring me as their guide.

The weather was cold but dry, the snow not deep at all and the ground not dangerously icy that morning. My intention was to follow Crater Creek north from the highway, sticking to the valley floor and to hike past Crater Mountain which dominated the Eastern horizon. If I made good progress I would get as far as Jack Mountain to the north by lunchtime and if the weather remained kind to me I planned to skirt around it and find my way further north to Devils Creek and beyond, a distance of about eight to ten miles as the crow flies. But I wasn’t a crow and over the kind of terrain I was anticipating, it would be well into the afternoon before I turned west and followed the next trail as it meandered across to the splendid expanse of Ross Lake. Then it would be a relatively easy hike south down the East Bank trail before I hit Ruby Creek and followed it and the highway back home, hopefully ending my expedition not too long after dark. Piece of piss.

I jogged for a short distance then marched briskly for a while before breaking into a trot again. It was the method used on army route marches called a ‘yomp’, an acronym for ‘your own marching pace’ which had become second nature to me to cover long distances at a good speed without becoming overly exhausted. I wanted to blast through the more familiar territory close to home that I’d already explored thoroughly before breaking new ground.

Pretty soon I was making my way along unfamiliar tracks and settled down to a more comfortable pace. I had my compass, a map, my binoculars and a light rucksack containing enough food for the day along with a tiny camping gas burner and a vessel to enable me to make a brew from my diminishing supply of Horniman’s when I needed one. I made a mental note to write home and ask one of my family to ship out another catering sized pack as soon as they could, I didn’t want to run out. Being an Englishman to the core, I could put up with any amount of hardship as long as I had my tea. I wasn’t carrying a weapon that day, at least not of the kind that went bang. But I had enough survival kit to be on the safe side which included my faithful ex-army issue bayonet hanging from my belt in a webbing sheath. Honed to a razor sharpness it made a useful hunting knife, heavy enough to chop branches to make a shelter if needed and sharp enough to skin a rabbit. I’d wrapped it up in some towelling and packed it discretely in my luggage before setting off from England and thankfully it hadn’t been picked up by customs at the airport. I also had with me some fishing line, hooks and the means to light a camp fire.

It was one of those magical mornings when after a clear, chilly night the boughs of the trees and undergrowth are bedecked with an air hoar frost. Glittering thick garlands of spiky ice crystals hanging silently and motionless in the brilliant early morning light, sweeping in graceful arcs from the trees towards the crunchy frozen forest floor. I was thinking to myself that nothing could look more beautiful, but as the morning progressed and the temperature rose slightly above freezing, millions of droplets of melted ice water formed and dripped gently from the facets of the pointed crystals. It was like walking through a forest of diamonds.

Enjoying myself immensely, taking note of landmarks and timings in a hurried scrawl as I made my way steadily north. I stopped frequently to study the signs of the resident wildlife such as tracks, droppings or the remains left from feeding. Occasionally I moved away from the fast flowing creek and into the trees where I sat quietly deep in cover and listened intently to the sounds of the forest, hoping to spot something interesting to jot in my notebook. I spent some time watching a raccoon rummaging through a pile of leaves and forest debris like a masked bandit plundering somebody’s belongings. He discovered some nuts and made the most of them before casually continuing on his way, oblivious to my presence. I caught a fleeting glimpse of a cat, probably a bobcat which approached my position and then disappeared in a flash once it caught a whiff of my scent, vanishing silently into the forest. Despite my frequent pauses I remained true to my schedule and soon I was treated to the stunning vista of Jack Mountain, viewed through occasional gaps in the trees.

Turning to the north east I found a trail which led me along the lower slopes of the mountain where the trees thinned out a little. Feeling hungry after my morning’s exertions I stopped on a patch of open ground where I settled down to eat some of my rations and brew some hot tea. I sat on a fallen tree trunk propped up against a massive boulder to give me an elevated view over the clearing that I had chosen. I didn’t want to be surprised by a hungry or inquisitive bear who might smell my food and invite himself along for lunch, even though it was only cold bacon butties and some fruit.

Further north, the huge black wolf led his mate and the three small cubs along a rocky ledge and into a crevice that split the cliff face towering above, offering good shelter and cover. They were all ravenous and exhausted, the cubs were whimpering with fatigue and hunger but their mother’s milk had dried up days ago so there was no relief from their pangs of hunger. The weakness that the black wolf was experiencing was still alien to him. The strength and power of his glory days had never previously deserted him but as he led the pack on their journey down the frozen mountain slopes the ever present pain in his paw had worsened. His limbs became leaden and desperation began to set in. After a short rest he defecated and waited while the she wolf consumed the stinking deposit, hoping to extract even the smallest residue of protein. Then, despite it being broad daylight he left her in their temporary den to protect the starving cubs while he set off once again to try to find food.

Leaving Jack Mountain behind me I climbed a steep ridge, masochistically delighting in the ‘burn’ I was experiencing in my upper leg muscles. Who needs a gymnasium I thought as I proceeded north. The going was quite tough along the ridge and I forced myself to take it slowly. The last thing I needed was a sprained ankle out here miles from anywhere. After about three miles I discovered a negotiable path which led me back down the ridge towards Devils Creek. I crossed the creek using a fallen pine tree bridge, balancing precariously above the rushing white water. I scrambled up the opposite slope, heading for where my map informed me that I would find a well established trail called the Devils Dome Loop. This would take me through a pass and head off west to Ross Lake. Making it to the top of the next ridge I was beginning to feel the strain a bit, puffing and blowing hard. I could see what I deduced must be the Devils Dome to the East, dominating a magnificent panoramic view. It seemed a suitable place to rest a while before heading down to the Loop and setting off on the long haul back.

Loosening the webbing straps I was just removing my rucksack when the silence was shattered by a cataclysmic explosion. Having been blissfully alone with my own thoughts all day I reckon I must have leapt at least two feet from the ground as I swore out loud. I was so shocked, my heart leapt into my mouth and I instinctively ducked and turned away from the noise. The first explosion was still echoing loudly from the surrounding rock faces when a second followed. I turned again. I could see smoke billowing from the bushes nearby and smell the unmistakable acrid stench of gun smoke. Before I could gather my wits a huge black shape flashed across my peripheral vision just a few feet away and disappeared behind me. I felt a blast of hot breath on my hand as I whirled towards it but there was hardly time to recognise what it was before it sped away between some rocks and shot off into the trees. But the glimpse I had was enough for me to see that it was a wolf. A big, muscular, ferocious looking black wolf.

As my heart rate began to return to some semblance of normality, a man carrying a rifle stepped from behind some scrub, casually levering another shell into the chamber and looking off in the direction that the wolf had taken. I was beginning to think I had stumbled into some sort of time warp. I hadn’t seen anything that looked remotely like he did since watching ‘How The West Was Won’ at the Embassy Cinema ten years previously. He had the grizzled features of an elderly frontiersman and was wearing greasy looking animal skin clothing to match. He fired yet another round into the air causing me to flinch again then he walked back into the bushes, reappearing a couple of minutes later leading a mule. He walked over to me grinning beneath his bushy beard.

“Hope I didn’t startle you young fellah.” he said jovially. His eyes were twinkling at the corners and I could tell he was rather pleased with himself.

“Ned Clayton.” he continued, removing a leather glove and offering his hand.

“That big ol’ black wolf has been tracking you for the past couple of miles or so.”

I took his hand, so coarse it was like holding an old Brillo pad which gripped mine with surprising strength.

“Startle? I nearly shit my pants!” I replied. “How do you know it’s been tracking me. I never saw a thing.”

“Obviously not. That’s why I thought I’d tag along for a while.”

“How long have you been following me then?” I asked

“Oh.... like I said, a couple of miles or so. It appears we’re heading in the same direction. I thought it was unusual, that big ol’ wolf stalking you. They won’t normally come near us human beans. Know better. Very unusual. Then I saw he was crippled, gotta bad paw. He’s probably so hungry he’d bite the balls off a low flying duck! Desperately hungry. Cain’t catch nothing with a bad paw like that. Maybe there are cubs around,” he went on and on as if he’d not had a chance to talk to another person in weeks and was making up lost time.

“Whatever, when I seen him get so close I thought I’d better see him off before things got outta hand.”

“Well, I’m glad you did! and thanks. How come he didn’t come after you then?” I asked.

“Oh, he knew I was around, and ol’ Rudy here.” he replied, nodding towards the mule.

Rudy? as in Rudolf? This was getting weird again. I twigged that this was the same character that Kathleen and I had spotted briefly a few weeks ago, closer to home.

“Thing is...” he went on “...he knows I’m man. I smell of man and he knows better than to approach man. But you? Well, you smell of soap. You reek of it.”

To press home his point he wrinkled his nose and gave an exaggerated sniff.

“To him you stink but he didn’t recognise what kinda critter you are, so he was looking to see if you were easy meat. Fact is, you probably are.”

What he said made sense and there was no danger that old Ned had been close to a bar of soap for quite some time that was for sure. Another lesson learned. I finished getting out my little gas burner and offered Ned a hot drink.

“Sure. I got coffee in my pack. Don’t much like that stuff you got there.”

He was referring to my tea. What a heathen! Once we’d settled with our drinks, Ned took a sip of his coffee and then spoke.

“So, a limey by the sound of you. You’re one of the guys from the Kirby place then?”

“Yep. That’s right,” I replied. “There’s me, Peter the Kraut and his girlfriend from Ireland, Kathleen. Peter’s the nephew of Hank who used to own the place before he died.”

“Oh. His gal is she?”

Ned had accentuated the word ‘his’ so that his comment had the intonation of sarcasm. He looked at me quizzically but didn’t elaborate and I remained tactfully silent. After a thoughtful pause he continued.

“It was me found him you know.”

He looked a little pensive before going on.

“Hank. Good friend of mine. It was me found Hank that day. He was on the floor in the workshop. Stone cold dead when I walked in. Bin dead two days they reckoned. Heart just give out.”

The conversation had taken on a sombre tone and Ned didn’t say a lot more before we finished our drinks, packed up and continued on our way north. When we reached the Loop we shook hands again. Ned assured me that the wolf would be long gone now and would have learned to keep away from me after the fright he’d been given. He continued North with Rudy trailing close behind and I went west through Devils Pass and continued on in the direction of Ross Lake. I’d spent a little longer than I’d planned with Ned so I upped my pace a bit. The thought of that monstrous black wolf somewhere behind me out there in the wilderness was also a good reason to get the hell away from that area as quickly as I could. Despite my increased pace and the assurances of Ned I went with renewed vigilance, pausing often to listen and checking the path behind me constantly.

The edges had been knocked off the enjoyment of my little expedition. My mind was now filled with less pleasant thoughts. The look on Ned’s face when he’d questioned me about Kathleen being Peter’s girl, haunted me as I continued on my way. The old buzzard was obviously creeping about unseen in the wilderness all the time. Kathleen and I had probably put on quite a show for him on more than one occasion. Father Christmas my arse. I was going to have to be careful how things panned out, I reckoned.

As the black wolf eased his pace down after sprinting away from the prey, his paw hurt more than ever and his hunger continued to rage but soon he regained his composure and loped silently if painfully on his way back towards the lair. Far ahead, perhaps more than a mile he heard the squabbling yelps of coyotes carrying on the breeze and in the same instant smelled a kill. He stalked their position from downwind and got in close to assess the situation. Then he rushed in, snarling and bellowing with all the bravado he could muster. There were three coyotes, each about half the size of the fearsome wolf. They bolted into the trees yapping and barking with frustration and anger. They were no match for him. They watched hungrily from a safe distance in despair as the huge wolf dragged the remains of their kill away.

The black wolf devoured a good few pounds of flesh from the remains of the kill, a mule deer, healthy and fat after a long summer. Hunger sated, he rested a while and then dragged the deer into the cover of some rocks, ripped a hind quarter from the carcass and continued on his way with his prize. Despite the crippled leg, he loped along with some of his old power and confidence now, albeit with an awkward, bobbing gait which he’d perfected since the injury had occurred. On towards the den where he expected the she wolf and cubs to be waiting but they were gone. There were signs of a titanic struggle, the white she wolf appeared to have given a good account of herself but she had been no match for her attackers.

The resident pack in this territory, where the black wolf and she had arrived unannounced, had not taken kindly to having their range invaded by this stranger and her cubs. Five of the male members had taken her on, surrounding the temporary den and cutting off any easy escape. Relentlessly they had harried and savaged her while she fought to the last breath to protect her young pups. As the fight had raged there had been several opportunities to get away. She could have deserted the cubs, run off and saved herself but powerful maternal instincts forced her to hold her ground and fight on knowing it was a battle she could never win. It was as if she had known that this was the time and place where it should end and accepted that this was her destiny, the way she should die. Inevitably, weakened by hunger and hopelessly outnumbered she had succumbed. The pack were merciless. After killing her, without pausing they made short and brutal work of the cubs.

The black wolf left the food he had brought and searched the immediate area. He found parts of his mate’s carcass not far away but no sign of his three young offspring. He circled her bloodied remains, moved them with his nose, pawed at them, recognising her scent but not her form. After a while he returned to the highest point of the bluff above the den and there he howled. It was the loudest, longest, most gut wrenching howl that had ever reverberated around those mountains. The rest of the fauna in the area grew silent, trembling at the terrifying sound. Far away, the resident wolf pack sat bolt upright and listened fearfully. None were tempted to answer or showed any sign of wanting to investigate this new threat to their territory. Most of them bore wounds inflicted by the white she-wolf earlier that day. As dusk fell, the mighty black wolf continued howling woefully into the darkening sky.

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