Fate's Last Turn

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Chapter 27

It was surprisingly noisy that first night on the run in the darkness, alone in the vast wilderness. Every rustle of leaves, every moan of wind in the trees, every bird call, each unfamiliar sound had me shooting bolt upright from where I lay. I spent most of the small hours in fight or flight mode, keeping my bayonet close to hand although I had no idea what I would do with it if they came for me. I already knew that my pursuers were armed to the teeth and would not be taking any chances. I reckoned from my experience back at the Kirby place that they would more than likely shoot me dead where I lay and worry about the consequences later.

Every hour or so I got up and crept around the perimeter of my crude campsite, trying to generate a little heat in my muscles and iron out the kinks caused by the discomfort of my makeshift bed. I peered into the darkness and listened intently to the soundtrack of the Cascade Mountain wilderness at night, trying to differentiate between the natural and the potentially threatening. I was freezing cold and have to say I’ve had better nights but at some point I must have dozed off, for how long I don’t know.

I awoke with a start, not knowing what it was that had disturbed me. The light had improved fractionally from pitch black to a steely grey as dawn nudged at the distant horizon but still remained at bay. I lay motionless, eyes wide open with senses straining and tried not to panic.

There it was again. Not much but enough for me to become hyper alert, all drowsiness swept away in an instant. The tinkle of a small rock being displaced as someone crept around just a few feet away from where I lay. The snap of a small twig, the light rasp of a foot on frozen soil. Slowly I moved my hand in search of the handle of my bayonet which lay on the ground beside me. The weight of the cold heavy steel knife in my fist with its coarse machine turned grips reassured me slightly. Rolling carefully on to my side and then easing slowly onto my knees I quietly shifted my position into a low crouch in the darkness, ready to lunge. I had kept my gloves on all night and was thankful that I wouldn’t have to fight with bare fists having suffered enough broken knuckles in the past to know better. Peering around the side of my shelter into the darkness with eyes gradually adjusting, in the misty opaque scene before me I could just make out an area blacker than its surroundings. A massive bulky shape over by the stream was moving very slowly. I assumed that it was the obese cop who had tried to kill me the day before, even though subconsciously I knew he could never have travelled so far and so fast as to have arrived here yet. I took a few silent, deep breaths to steady myself and prepared to charge him.

Suddenly the unidentified visitor farted loudly. A long, rasping, drawn out blast of a fart like an enthusiastic round of applause at a cricket match. It was followed by the exaggerated slurping of an immense animal quenching its thirst. It was a moose.

“For fuck’s sake!” I exclaimed out loud.

At the sound of my voice, the startled moose raised its head in panic, gave a throaty roar and then took off like a race horse, zigzagging between boulders and belting down the bluff, scattering stones and debris as it disappeared into the darkness. I was left with a pounding heart and a less than pleasant musty aroma wafting around in the cold air of pre-dawn. Fortunately I hadn’t eaten enough to cause a more serious situation in my underpants.

It took me several minutes to calm myself down. There seemed little point in attempting to go back to sleep so now that I was wide awake I decided to investigate whatever it was that I had spotted the previous evening just before dark. For my own peace of mind I couldn’t leave without finding out or I’d be forever looking over my shoulder expecting to be set upon at any moment. Whoever was down there, if it was me he was after then dawn would be the time that he made his move, hoping to catch me unawares. I was going to turn the tables by pre-empting his strategy.

Packing everything back into my rucksack I strapped it on tightly and then went over to the stream to splash some fresh water on my face. It was fearsomely cold water which must have been on the point of freezing into solid ice. I’d forgotten my damaged nose which dealt me a blast of agony as soon as I touched it, serving to awaken me even more fully. Eyes watering, as the pain subsided I took a long drink of water and then, using my fingers, smeared some of the slimy green and rusty red lichen from the nearby rocks in diagonal stripes down my wet face.

Satisfied that I was adequately camouflaged, I checked that everything about my person was secured so that I could move silently with confidence. Then I set off, picking my way down the slope in the darkness. I headed diagonally away from my camp before creeping into the trees at the bottom about a hundred yards from where I estimated I had seen the tell tale glint of light. With my bayonet held at the ready in front of me, I moved painfully slowly keeping low. I took one small pace at a time, feeling carefully with my boot before placing my foot and putting any weight on it. Every ten paces or so I dropped into a crouch and listened, stock still, straining to hear any sign of life ahead. Only when certain there was none did I move forward again. It took what seemed to me to be about an hour to approach the position I was aiming for and the dim dawn light grew fractionally brighter. Then suddenly there it was right in front of me. It was the smell which I noticed an instant before I saw it but if the light had been any worse I wouldn’t have seen it at all. A shallow depression in the soil, partially covered with leafy branches underneath which I could just make out a dark green sleeping bag and draped over that was a brown blanket. On the ground beside the bedding lay a crudely opened half empty food can. To my heightened senses and in the untainted mountain air it was a powerful, delicious aroma which smelled like corned beef. My stomach gave out an involuntary rumble. As my vision continued to improve with the steadily approaching dawn I could just make out a rucksack, much larger than mine which was stuffed in the hollow of some tree roots nearby. There was a pair of binoculars sitting on top of it, probably what I had spotted reflecting the last rays of light the night before. There were boot prints and scuff marks all around in the soft earth and the residual dusting of snow. I dropped to the ground, heart pounding and studied the camp site in silence. There was good cover here and a direct line of sight through the trees to the bluff at the top of which I’d made my camp. I heard the faint sound of a water splash and a muffled gasp about twenty yards away as somebody else realised how cold the water was that they were washing in. I knew what that felt like. It was more than likely the same stream I’d used earlier, flowing past my camp and finding its way down to this one.

My bravado which had been so strong when I’d first awoken, completely deserted me now and I reconsidered facing head on whoever this camp belonged to. They probably had a gun, they might be twice my size. I was reasonably handy in a fight but I wasn’t Dirty Harry. The doubts increased and I wondered what on earth I’d been thinking. I had no time to properly consider a change of plan, I just acted on instinct. Moving quickly I picked up the meat can, shoved it in the pocket of my parka and pulled the blanket and sleeping bag from beneath the branches, rolling them tightly as I moved towards the rucksack where I hoped to find more loot of the edible kind. Before I could reach it though I heard twigs snapping and the swish of booted feet stepping steadily through dead leaves towards me. I turned on my heels and stealthily melted back into the woods in the direction from which I had come, disappearing into the darkness as the mysterious hunter re-entered his camp. He paused, all sound and movement ceased as he sensed that something wasn’t right. With my back turned I couldn’t make out anything about him and I didn’t want to chance turning to face him for fear of giving my position away if he had a gun. Resisting the urge to run for it, I continued stealthily away as silently as possible, retracing my steps until I felt I had moved far enough back so that I could safely increase my pace undetected.

I didn’t think the person, whoever he was, would be able to tell in which direction I’d gone until the light improved significantly. By that time I planned to be far away but then I heard something I didn’t expect. I heard laughing. The stranger was laughing loudly without caring who heard him, but there was nothing at all jovial about the sound. It was a demonic cackle like something from a low budget horror film. My resolve weakened further and I broke into a run. Once clear and fairly sure I wasn’t being pursued I slowed and made my way into some cover. I stuffed my newly acquired possessions into my rucksack while I watched my back trail and listened intently until I was certain nobody was coming. Then I re-emerged, breaking into an economical lope, covering a lot of ground before full daylight sluggishly made its announcement.

I was pleased on the one hand to have found myself some decent warm bedding for my next night’s sleep, and I had a bit of breakfast burning a hole in my pocket. I’d barely eaten anything in the last sixteen hours and was drooling at the thought of the half eaten can of corned beef I’d stolen. But on the other hand I had confirmed that I wasn’t alone out here in the wilderness as I’d been hoping. Somehow I’d been discovered and assumed that I was now being pursued, but by whom I had no idea. One thing was for sure though, I was going to give him a run for his money. With that thought in mind I increased my pace significantly.

The snow came again and continued to fall lightly as I trotted along but it wasn’t enough to cause any problems for me. I had been travelling North and East since leaving the Kirby place, sticking to familiar trails and moving swiftly. As I continued I began thinking that if the going was easy for me, it would be equally easy for my pursuers to follow too. With that in mind I changed my course and headed more directly to the east. This would mean a lot more climbing up steep ridges and down into valleys which tended to stretch north to south according to the remains of my map. I didn’t have a destination in mind. It was a case of keeping myself moving and not giving anyone a clue as to which direction I was heading in. Eventually, if my fitness was at as high a level as I considered it to be, I would break the chain of pursuit so that nobody knew where the hell I was. I had experienced this scenario many times in the army on escape and evasion exercises but never had to play the game for real. Now my life depended on whatever skills I had learned along with my fitness and the quality of the decisions I made from now on.

I found a good place to rest half way up another ridge where I concealed myself from above under the tree canopy just in case the helicopter returned. I ate the entire portion of corned beef, eating slowly and chewing every morsel to ensure that I gained as much sustenance from it as possible. While I ate I stared constantly in the direction I had come from but there was still no sign of pursuit. He would be coming though, of that I had no doubt. At the very least he was going to be furious that I’d nicked his bedding.

Once refreshed and having swept the area before me meticulously with my binoculars one final time, I packed the empty tin in my pack and got on my way again. I found occasional berries still on the branches of some bushes. I left the ones I couldn’t identify, but discovered some blueberries and bramble berries that although well past their best were still palatable and I hoped the sugars they contained would give me a small energy boost. I filled my can with the berries and travelled on, nibbling away at them as I went. Nearly all of the valleys boasted a creek or at least a little stream running through them. Often I came across small, slow moving pools where there were obvious signs of life below the surface and along the banks.

To make myself harder to track by not heading on a specific route, sometimes I turned south and continued for a mile or so before beginning the ascent of the next ridge. Other times I turned North. In this way, travelling an unpredictable path I hoped to throw off my pursuers. I continued into the afternoon, stopping again for a rest, a drink of cold fresh water and some of my chocolate and biscuits. What a diet this was turning out to be.

Cresting one particular ridge, scanning the sky before crossing the open ground I came across a rocky escarpment which I needed to descend. Taking it in my stride, scrambling down the slope on my feet where I could and on my backside where it was too steep, I became aware of a very unpleasant smell, extremely pungent in the crisp mountain air. The stench became stronger until I found its source at the bottom of the slope. Hidden among some rocks were the gory remains of a couple of small animals. Barely recognisable due to extreme decomposition I thought they might be wolf cubs. I nudged one of the carcasses with my boot to expose the underneath which was crawling and writhing with maggots feasting furiously on the rotting flesh. They were the biggest, fattest and most hideous maggots imaginable. The seething mass was quite hypnotic to watch, if a little stomach churning. After a few seconds an idea popped into my head.

“Mmmm that’ll be my dinner sorted then,” I said to myself and then felt foolish because I’d actually spoken the words out loud albeit quietly.

“Talking to myself now. The stress is definitely getting to me” I said and then realised I’d done it again.

I took the corned beef tin from my pack, scoffed the remainder of my berries and half filled the can with a generous handful of the squirming, wriggling mass. I didn’t have anything with which to seal the tin so I crushed the top of it and bent it over like an envelope using my bayonet to prevent my new, smelly little friends from escaping. Then I replaced it in the pocket of my pack.

By now it was late afternoon so I began to search out a site for my next camp. It’s often the case when out hiking, you see plenty of ideal camp sites during the day but want to cover more distance before stopping. Then nothing suitable presents itself for miles and you begin to wish you’d stopped sooner. However I had a good idea of what I was looking for and thankfully there was help available in the form of some huge majestic birds. Several bald eagles were wheeling and circling in the sky ahead. As I approached the position beneath them I could see that others were coursing up and down a fairly large creek flowing along the floor of yet another valley. This was a good sign as the birds were hunting the same prey as I was, the difference being that they knew where to look. I followed the creek until it fed into a sizeable pool, with another exit at the far end so it was apparent that there was a steady current running through. I’m no fishing expert but I hoped it was a likely spot for salmon or trout and the eagles had confirmed its possibilities. Nearby, at the edge of some woods I chose the location of my camp site. Good cover provided by the trees with no shortage of dead wood strewn about the vicinity to build a shelter and a fire.

First the shelter, along the lines of the one in which I’d spent the previous night but smaller. I wedged stout poles in between rocks, driving them into the soft earth below as best I could. I lashed a cross beam at the top between the poles using strips of fresh, sinewy bark from a nearby stand of saplings. Then I leaned more poles and bushy foliage against it securing the tops to my cross beam and making a small lean-to about four feet high at the opening and six feet or so wide. High enough for me to sit upright or lay down, small enough to be snug. Next the firewood and a supply of dry kindling which I stashed in my shelter for now. Then, while there was still plenty of daylight left I took my small tin containing fishing line and hooks from my rucksack along with the corned beef tin, and walked over to the pool.

I’d never been an angler. From an early age I’d always baulked at the thought of being cruel to or harming any creature just for enjoyment or sport, even a fish. A childhood memory flashed into my mind of my brothers and I hiking over to the river Lea which was a couple of miles from our house through the swampy wasteland beyond the Tramps Bridge I’d recently revisited. We had cobbled together a fishing rod using an old telescopic aerial from some sort of army vehicle that we’d found in our dad’s shed. We had twine from mum’s sewing box and hooks swapped for marbles in the school playground. With little squashed balls of bread for bait, unbelievably we caught one fish after another, mostly minnows but to a seven or eight year old boy they were proper fish. However, watching my big brother clumsily extracting the barbed hook from their mouths and watching the poor creatures gasping their final moments of life away upset me so much that I had to return home early.

Things were entirely different now though. My very survival depended on my being able to feed myself. Even though I felt a little sorry for them as I pierced the maggots with my hook, I hoped they would offer an irresistible bait to any unsuspecting fish passing through the pool and within a few moments I was rewarded with a small spiny dragon like creature, not big enough to make a meal but an encouraging start. I caught a lot of them along with some little roaches, none of which I fancied eating but I kept them just in case it was all I got.

Things became frustrating. I knew there were some big fish in the pool as I’d witnessed the eagles taking a few. I could see the buggers occasionally rising, cruising nonchalantly along with dorsal fins splitting the surface of the water to leave a rippling ‘V’ shaped wake but it was hopeless. I took a small piece of chocolate from the diminishing supply in my pocket, unwrapped it and sat disconsolately chewing as I considered my meagre catch. I picked up the maggot tin and tipped the squirming mass into the palm of my hand, hurling it out onto the water. There was an instant feeding frenzy as the resident population rose and took the surprise banquet gleefully. The bastards were taking the piss. They certainly hadn’t been so keen when the maggots were attached to my hook. Then an idea struck me. Flies, that’s what trout liked to eat, sod the bloody maggots.

I spent the next ten minutes or so fashioning a fly using some of the silver chocolate wrapper along with some small, discarded fluffy down feathers I found by the waterside. Using this combined with the largest of my hooks and all held together with a short length of my fishing line, it certainly looked the part once I’d finished. Attaching it to my line I stood up, whirled the line around and around above my head and then let it fly out onto the water surface. Pulling the line back jerkily towards me, I repeated the cast several times studying the shadows below the surface.

“Come on you ugly, slimy, scaly, cold blooded little sods. Come to Daddy,” I pleaded, talking to myself once more.

Over and again I cast my makeshift fly out onto the water, my enthusiasm waning with each unsuccessful try. To my astonishment, just as I was thinking of giving up entirely I got a massive bite. Strong and powerful, the fish swam vigorously away until it used up all of the slack on my line and was brought to a sharp halt, securing my hook more firmly in its mouth in the process. Excitedly I played the line, hauling in when it went slack and easing it out a little when taut, trying to prevent the line from breaking under the strain. The fish fought its little heart out with silver flanks glinting and the surface of the water erupting as it contorted and twisted, desperate to escape. Eventually I teased my catch close to the bank and carefully dragged it out, finally giving the beautiful velvet smooth miracle of nature a good smack over the head with the handle of my bayonet to put an end to its desperate struggle for life. It wasn’t a salmon but something similar. Looking at the slashes of bright crimson under its lower jaw I thought it might be a cut throat trout. Whatever it was, it must have weighed in at about three and a half pounds. There was a lot of meat on it and my stomach was rumbling like a volcano as I took my catch back to my camp, grinning like a Cheshire cat and drooling in anticipation.

I cleaned the fish with the razor sharp blade of my bayonet and shoved a wet green stick down its throat. Then I lit my fire, a very small fire sheltered in amongst the rocks and using the driest sticks I could find to avoid any tell tale smoke. I roasted my fish quickly and at the same time I boiled a mug of water then extinguished the fire as soon as I was done. Along with my strong cup of tea I enjoyed the best meal I’d had in what seemed an age, savouring every morsel. I scoffed the lot, not wanting any left over food lying around my camp to attract a curious hungry bear. I even managed a loud belch as I chucked the remains of the fish skeleton back in the river after I’d finished eating. It’s surprising just how much one’s mood can lift after a successful bit of foraging and a decent feed. As darkness fell I settled down under the shelter, snuggled up in my newly acquired blanket and sleeping bag. I drifted off into a well deserved sleep anticipating a far better one than the previous night.

About four hundred yards away, concealed in a thicket of trees, another man took his binoculars away from his eyes and grinning to himself, settled down on his own makeshift bed. He didn’t have any bedding.

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