Fate's Last Turn

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Chapter 28

I slept deeply and then plummeted to depths of unconsciousness to reach places I really didn’t want to go. I dreamed of Kathleen and our stolen moments together. Raising my head from a passionate kiss I saw her smashed skull oozing blood, eyes wide with shock, her mouth silently opening and closing like a stranded fish. I turned away in horror but felt compelled to look back only to find that she had morphed into Chloë and I became engulfed by sadness and regret. Then came the wolves loping across the rock strewn clearing at the top of a bald ridge. Relentless, unstoppable, yelping and baying as they pursued their quarry. I felt real terror and knew with certainty that I was the object of their pursuit. I fled in panic, looking over my shoulder as I ran for my life, petrified and exhausted. Slogging up steep inclines and tumbling down cliffs. Hopelessly bolting but unable to gain speed as if running through thick deep liquid. Now hardly able to move, desperate to escape and all the time the spine chilling howling growing closer. It floated on the breeze, carried across the mountains, echoed from the cliff faces and roared from behind every tree and then suddenly the beasts were snapping at my heels. I felt the tug of something snagging my rucksack from behind and turned again in blind panic to face them but there was nothing there.

I sat bolt upright in my bed, sweating and unsure whether I was awake or still trapped in my nightmare, struggling to make sense of where I was and what I was doing. I had no idea of the time as I couldn’t seem to focus on the dial of my luminous watch no matter how hard I tried but the night was still pitch black. When the reality of my nightmare diminishing, relief washed over me and I settled back down to drift off to sleep again, this time more peacefully. It was the sleep of an exhausted man and dawn had already broken when I awoke for the second time.

I lay still, luxuriating in the warmth and comfort of my bed, taking a quiet few moments to gather my wits and come to terms with my situation. A vague residue of my nightmare remained, drifting through my consciousness but difficult to pin down. I was well aware that I wasn’t even close to being unbreakable mentally and hadn’t been since Ireland. I feared that the situation I now found myself forced to cope with had pushed me back over the edge of the precipice and was exhuming the bouts of insanity that I’d tried so hard to supress. Sitting up I instinctively looked at my watch, only to find the face broken and clogged with dried mud.

“When did that fucking happen?” I said to myself.

Such a small thing but it felt like another chip in my armour, even though in my current situation I knew it was of no consequence what time of the day it was. I removed the watch from my wrist and flung it as far as I could into the nearby trees and then lay down again. If I wanted to lie-in for a few more minutes then I was bloody well going to.

I remained confident in my physical powers of endurance, but like any machine I needed plenty of fuel to keep me going while I trekked over this harsh terrain. The hard won fish supper I’d enjoyed the night before had gone a long way towards boosting my energy but I had awoken from my sleep ravenous again. The cold and the exposure had a lot to do with speeding up my metabolism and I knew I was going to have to work hard to sustain myself if I was to evade capture and eventually escape this madness. I also needed to concentrate on raising my morale as much as possible. Time to get going.

I arose stiffly, stretched my limbs and emerged from my camp to survey the immediate surroundings. Light snow had fallen silently throughout the night, covering everything with a fluffy white blanket, and then my heart missed a beat. There was a set of fresh foot prints in the snow and they weren’t mine. A trail led from the trees at the edge of my camp, over to where my bed still lay crumpled up under the shelter. An area of snow had been disturbed no more than a couple of feet from my rucksack pillow where minutes before my head had rested. More tracks led in a slightly different direction back into the trees. These were not the tracks of an animal, they were created by a pair of size ten boots and had not yet begun to be covered by the gently falling fresh snow.

Someone had entered my camp and watched me while I slept, perhaps only a few minutes ago. I couldn’t comprehend. Who the hell was it and why hadn’t they harmed me, or captured me or murdered me. My head was spinning as I dashed the few paces back into my shelter to retrieve my bayonet which I’d left stabbed into the ground beside me as I slept. But the bayonet was gone.

Grabbing the nearest lump of firewood and wielding it with two hands like a broadsword in front of me, my senses were in overload. I scanned the immediate area and the surrounding vegetation. Whichever direction I faced I felt the presence of my enemy behind me, whirled to confront him but found nobody there. Soon the urge to run overwhelmed me. I gathered everything together from my camp, tightened the laces of my boots which I’d slept in and ran off towards the next ridge. Breakfast was going to have to wait.

A welcome surge of energy courtesy of an intense adrenalin rush found me cresting a rocky, bald escarpment after what should have been a difficult climb. In my heightened state of alert I’d thrown caution to the wind and scrambled up the near vertical cliff like a mountain goat wearing crampons. Once beyond the skyline I dropped to the ground and crawled behind a boulder, peering around the edge of it to scan my back trail with my binoculars. I stayed there long enough to be certain that there was nobody in close pursuit. If there had been I would have been able to spot them easily crossing the open ground on the approach to the foot of the cliff or on the climb to the top of it. It was only then that I realised how hazardous my climb had been and told myself to count to ten and consider what I was doing in future before I had a serious fall. But I was OK so got back up, turned and took stock of the terrain that lay before me.

From the top of the escarpment I could see the ground falling away gently for what I estimated to be about half a mile. There were just a few scrappy bushes and patches of weeds dotted across the open space before it came to a distinct end, an almost straight line running both left and right continued into the distance both ways. At that point the ground level must have dropped sharply because I could see the top of an uneven and colourful tree canopy beyond, which stretched away as far as my eyes could see. It was another old growth forest of deciduous trees such as maple, poplar, alder and cotton wood. Through my binoculars I determined that the patchwork quilt of colourful autumn leaves was studded with a few aspen and birch and I could also see the distinctive yellow foliage of willows snaking through, signifying the route of a stream or river. The canopy was dense and virtually unbroken for miles and from my position looked a good environment to lose myself in and hopefully give my unwelcome follower the slip while I was at it. Taking out my map I had a look to see if there was any useful information I could glean about the route before me. The whisky stains and smudged ink made it difficult to read but there wasn’t much detail about any features in the area anyway, just a few random contour lines. Whatever, it was where I was heading regardless.

Before I set off though, I had to do something about the growing pain I was experiencing deep in my lower abdomen. I hadn’t given myself a moment to even take a dump during my escape and the largish meal I’d managed to provide for myself the night before had triggered things off. Whether I liked it or not, now was the time. I didn’t even think I could make it as far as the trees so I squatted among the rocks. When the deed was done, unable to see any broad leaves in the immediate vicinity I ripped off a small section of my ruined map and cleaned myself up with it, taking care to use a section depicting an area I was unlikely to be returning to. Kicking some gravel over the soiled paper I couldn’t help noticing a little shield indicating the location of the sheriff’s office in Macadam, right in the centre where I’d chosen to wipe my arse.

“Now there’s justice!” I said to myself out loud and then set off feeling a little bit brighter and a little bit lighter, towards the trees.

Where I’d seen the ground falling away sharply was in fact so steep that it was more of a small cliff of about thirty feet. It presented a tricky descent down to the trees below with crumbling loose rocks and unstable debris. I took my time, climbing carefully down the almost vertical top section inch by inch and then digging in my heels and scrambling down the final slope on my backside. Not pretty but safe and effective. Soon I was enveloped by the shadowy woods at the bottom, picking my way past huge tree trunks without really finding a clear path to follow. I spotted obvious signs of wildlife activity but the creatures hadn’t created any definite trails and as I persevered the going got even tougher. I was constantly finding my route blocked by impenetrable walls of thorny brambles and nettles which forced me to skirt around them before pressing on in a new direction. Often I found a few hundred yards of easier going but then I would be diverted once more. It happened over and over until I lost track completely of which direction I was travelling in. The sky above when I could see it at all, was cloudy and dull providing no guidance from the direction of light. Within a relatively short passage of time I realised I was hopelessly lost.

I blundered on for several more hours wishing I could turn back but not knowing which way actually was back. There was no horizon to focus on and no visible landmarks. The ground sometimes sloped up and sometimes sloped down but they were gentle undulations giving me nothing to go by. For all I knew I was travelling in circles. If I could only find the willow trees which I’d spotted from upon high. I knew they would only be growing in the damp soil next to a river or stream and therefore would at least provide me with something to follow. I was thirsty too. I’d made the mistake of vacating my last camp in too much of a hurry to think of filling my canteen so had very little water left. With each pause and frustrating reappraisal of my route I’d formed the habit of gulping down a swig from it without considering how difficult it was going to be to replenish. Very soon my water was all gone and I wished I’d been more frugal. All that I had to fend off my thirst was the occasional slimy damp bit of foliage or equally rank reedy grass to chew on, bitter and next to useless. There was an occasional snow patch that had found its way down to the ground through the thick tree canopy but they were muddy, studded with rodent droppings and full of leaf litter. Certainly not enough moisture to satisfy my craving.

I realised that I’d hardly given my mystery pursuer a thought since entering this forest. Pausing now to listen hard there was not the slightest indication of another person blundering about in my wake. Sound wouldn’t travel far here anyway and I reckoned if he was out of earshot he was just as likely to be as lost as I was. My claustrophobic tendencies started to kick in and I felt the frustration caused by my lack of progress worsen, edging towards anger. However safe this place was I knew I couldn’t remain here for long. It was already driving me mad and I longed to find my way out.

On and on I slogged, my parched throat seemingly closing and my tongue sticking to the roof of my mouth, my breathing harsh and painful. The stream continued to elude me and nothing changed apart from my energy level which waned with every step. I stumbled upon a small clearing, caused by the falling of a twisted, lightning stricken aspen which in turn had flattened some smaller surrounding trees as it had come down. So far nothing apart from a few stringy ferns had grown to replace them so it was a rare and welcome patch of light under visible sky. Sitting on one of the fallen logs I delved into my pack searching for something to eat. There was very little left. I chewed slowly on my remaining biscuits but it was difficult to swallow because my mouth was so dry. Right then I would have given anything for a hot brew to wash them down but just the thought of it made my throat seem even dryer. Besides, my tea supply was almost exhausted anyway. Things were getting serious.

I had to risk climbing high into a tree to try and see over the canopy and get some bearings to give myself an idea of a direction to stick to. Once rested I stripped off my parka and bulky upper clothing, slung my binoculars around my neck and chose a nearby cottonwood which appeared to be the tallest thing around. It had deeply fissured bark which gave me some purchase on the lower trunk and once I made it into the branches I was able to climb to a reasonable height quite easily. When I was as high as I thought safe with the boughs above looking too weak to support my weight, I got myself comfortable and took a good look around. I didn’t have a complete three sixty degree view as I wasn’t quite high enough but in the distance I could make out what looked like the bare slope down from the top of the cliff where I’d taken my dump before entering this bloody nightmare forest. It looked to be only three or four miles away even though I’d been hiking for the best part of the day. I could also make out the willow trees signifying the river or stream, about the same distance away but in almost the opposite direction. This was good news and bad. I’d travelled so long and so hard, wasted so much energy and strength to achieve such a meagre distance. I must have been going in circles. On the bright side it wasn’t very far to either extricate myself from this deadly maze or to reach the river, as long as I could find my way. A decision had to be made but it didn’t take me long to make my choice. I’d had about as much as I could take of these woods. I decided for better or worse that I’d head back in the direction of the cliff where I’d entered.

Climbing back down to the ground I put my kit back on and set off straight away in what I was confident was the right direction. It wasn’t long though before the barriers of brambles and nettles forced me off track as they had been doing all day. Despite my best efforts, even pushing on directly through some of the vicious thorn bushes which only served to rip my clothing and scratch my skin, my sense of direction deserted me once more. I didn’t come across any signs of my own progress from on the way in, even though I’d done nothing to cover my trail and must have zigzagged all over the area. I just had to keep blundering on blindly, trying my hardest not to think about long cool drinks which only served to stir my imagination further. I found myself visualising tall glasses of pale golden German lager with frothy white suds slipping over the brim and sliding down the cold, dewy sides. It was torturous.

Much later, completely lost again and close to total exhaustion I stopped for another rest and tried to think of some tactic that might help me find my way but I drew a blank. I’d already tried shinning up another tree but it had been no help to me and apart from expending too much energy which I couldn’t spare, it was a dangerous tactic. My strength was ebbing quickly and along with it my concentration. High in the second tree I’d almost fallen when a branch which had seemed perfectly stout enough to hold my weight, proved to be rotten and snapped off suddenly under my boot. I’d been left hanging by one arm about thirty feet above the forest floor, swearing to myself out loud but only able to manage a pathetic croak. Thankfully I’d been able to keep my nerve, swung my body sideways and regained a decent hold on the tree by wrapping my legs around the trunk before climbing back down safely but the incident had left me shocked. The thought of what might have happened, plunging to the ground and breaking a leg or maybe getting impaled on the branches of one of the fallen tree trunks was a sobering one. Lying there seriously injured with absolutely zero chance of being found before I died of thirst was not a pleasant prospect. I felt helpless, imprisoned by the forest with little hope of escape but decided to give the tree climbing a miss from that point on.

As I sat there despondently on my log, something about the trees directly ahead struck me as slightly odd. I pondered for a few minutes and then walked over to the edge of the little clearing to look closer. The nearest tree looked like an apple tree. Old and gnarled it twisted and screwed upwards to the height of about fifteen feet and sure enough, there above me a few small apples remained adorning the branches to confirm it. They looked well past their best, shrivelled, brown and dry and had been pecked to pieces by birds. I didn’t remember seeing any other apple trees in the forest up until then but that wasn’t all that had caught my attention. What was odd was that about ten paces on through the undergrowth I could see a second apple tree and beyond that another. They appeared to form a perfect row and to my right and left, although interspersed with other trees and weeds I could make out more rows exactly parallel. It was as if long ago they had been cultivated. The reason struck me suddenly. Bloody hell! I was in an orchard.

The apple trees had long since been engulfed by the cursed brambles and other shrubbery and I couldn’t see very far ahead but there was a definite plan to how they’d been planted. Studying them closer I could make out scars and other signs from where in the past they had been pruned and shaped. Very weird. I’d worked in local orchards back home as a kid in my school holidays, picking and sorting the fruit and helping to maintain the trees. Growing up in a rural area it’s the sort of thing you did to earn a few bob pocket money. I had an idea of how an orchard would be laid out. For a start there would be a windbreak of some sort surrounding it and looking behind me I now saw the plethora of alders which would serve just fine for that purpose. Beyond the apple trees ahead I found a mass of hazelnut shrubs. Yes. Definitely an orchard. The hazels had probably once been planted in a similar grid pattern to the apples but now, because of their means of reproduction which is to send out runners and suckers, they had developed into an almost impregnable block.

Although the remains of the apples had looked to be inedible, the nut trees were smothered in fruit and I had arrived at the peak harvesting season. I set about picking the most promising clusters and within minutes the front pocket of my rucksack as well as my parka pockets were stuffed full of them. I looked around on the ground for something to use to crack a few shells although the thought of trying to chew and swallow hazel nut kernels without any hope of a drink wasn’t a pleasant one. But if they were oily enough and I chewed them well I might manage. I stooped to pick up a suitable looking stone and at that moment something else caught my attention in my peripheral vision. Through a small gap in the lowest level of undergrowth, about fifty yards away I could see the remains of what looked like an old stone wall. I forced my way through the shrubs to get a better look. Once closer there was no doubt about it. Although totally covered with creepers and vines and on the point of total collapse, it was a derelict house!

Forgetting about my foraging for the moment I set about working my way through the remaining jungle of nut bushes and brambles and approached the dilapidated building. I was gob smacked. Single storey and very low, it had been built long ago from logs and stones and I could still see the remains of wooden shutters beside what once had been a window. The stone chimney at one end was almost intact and appeared to be holding the rest of the crumbling structure up. To one side there was what looked to have been a substantial shed, maybe a barn. A large birch tree had grown too close to where I assumed one of the sides of the barn had stood and over time had pushed the structure aside relentlessly until the entire building had fallen into a heap like a giant deck of playing cards. I walked along the wall of the house and peered inside through what had been the door frame. It was chaos in there but I could make out the remains of basic furniture, a cupboard and some shelving.

I surmised that if the house was still standing after perhaps as long as a century, it should still be safe for a few more minutes while I explored inside so I removed my pack and parka, leaving them near the entrance while I crawled in through the rubble and weeds. Once inside I stood up, my head touching what was left of the cobweb covered rafters. Fearing the danger of crashing through the floor and falling into a deep cellar, I took some very tentative steps to test the safety, listening for creaks of splitting wood. After the first couple of paces I realised it was an earthen rather than boarded floor so perfectly safe to take my weight. I crossed more confidently to the cupboard and looked inside. A massive spider scurried out, as big as the palm of my hand causing me to jump back in alarm and crack my head on a rusty hurricane lamp hanging from a beam. The base of the lamp fell apart and crashed to the floor at my feet, throwing up a cloud of dust and leaving just the top of it swinging around my head, squeaking a spooky rhythm. A rat scampered from behind the cupboard and disappeared outside. This was certainly no palace. Steadying myself I took another look inside. There were some glass jars in there containing unidentifiable substances, probably preserves but I left them where they were. No jam was going to last forever and even though my parched mouth was crying out for lubrication I didn’t want to poison myself. Lined up beside the jars were larger stone vessels but the lids, probably wooden or cork bungs had long since perished and turned to dust. Above the cupboard on the shelves were rusted cans, all of them had patches where the thin metal had corroded completely, the contents having long since leaked and rotted away. There were big rusty nails hammered into the walls here and there from which hung various items of what looked like horse tack but again, the condition was so poor that it was hard to identify anything properly. Only a few metal buckles and catches had survived to give me a clue.

The musty smell of decay and rot in the ruined house was unpleasant and beginning to turn my stomach and I was still a little worried about that spider. In my time I’d been to many dangerous places and experienced situations that would make any ordinary person’s toes curl but I’d always coped OK. I’d taken on some pretty handy opponents in the boxing ring not to mention facing down mad drunken Irish rioters on the streets of Derry. But spiders, that was a different prospect. I decided to abandon the space to the creepy crawlies, birds and rodents that had obviously made it their home and made my way back outside. I walked across a less overgrown patch of ground to where I spotted a stone poking up through long grasses and weeds. I fancied I could sit there comfortably while I gathered my thoughts. When I got closer to it I could see that it was the crude headstone of a grave. There were letters carved into it but what was written was mostly illegible. Running my hand over the stone and rubbing away some of the bright orange lichen I could just about decipher the characters J O something something N and a Y. There was also an A underneath but the rest of the letters or numbers were too corroded to read. I presumed the name was Johnny. Mentally thanking him for his hospitality, whoever he might have been I sat down on his headstone to try and process what I’d found. I wondered who had buried him. Had he died alone and been discovered years later and laid to rest? or had he lived with a family who had given him a decent burial before abandoning the place and returning to civilisation.

I knew that apple trees had the longest lifespan of any fruit tree and that hazels lived indefinitely as they continually renewed themselves so the orchard could easily be eighty or ninety years old. My new friend and host Johnny A had probably lived and died here perhaps in the 1880s or ’90s. He’d kept a horse or at least some livestock judging by the clues in the house, and he’d managed to scratch out a living. Perhaps he’d kept pigs or goats or maybe at one time there had been fields here that he’d cleared and cultivated. However he had lived, there had to have been water somewhere close by. I got back up and walked slowly around the property, studying every detail and hoping to find a well. With difficulty I threaded my way through the thorny weeds which grabbed at my legs and snagged on my trousers. I passed the chimney stack and made it around to the other side of the house and sure enough, just a few yards away I discovered a depression in the ground where grew a patch of lush emerald green reedy grass. Further inspection revealed a tiny fresh water spring, the clear water bubbling up through a sandy patch of soil to form a tiny pool in the long grass before trickling away through a channel and making its way down the gentle slope into the forest a few yards away.

Without hesitation I plunged my face into the shallow cold puddle and slurped at it like an animal. I wouldn’t have cared whether it had been brackish or even stagnant as long as it was wet but water had never tasted so delicious. My tongue seemed to absorb it like a sponge and very quickly changed from what had felt like a solid piece of wood rattling around my sore mouth, back to its normal fleshy self again. The relief to my painfully dry throat was instantaneous and I drank as much as I could take in one go.

Once my thirst was suitably quenched I retrieved my canteen, filled it to the brim and sipped at it more slowly, savouring every drop. In between swallows I scanned the immediate area like some hunted creature watching for predators. This had become my default mindset. I spotted a number of rusty hoops lying in the grass that had obviously once been integral components of wooden buckets and barrels, the wood having long since disintegrated. In fact there was a lot of stuff scattered around the place and I became intrigued. I wandered over to what had once been the barn to investigate its contents and climbed on top of the pile of rotten wood, shingles and beams. I dragged away a large panel of planking which turned to dust in my hands, falling apart instantly. Its removal revealed a jumble of objects beneath. I could recognise part of the central hub of a cartwheel and a heavy duty leaf spring. There was all sorts of metal paraphernalia that I couldn’t fathom but among the mass of decaying scrap my eyes fell upon a large, rusty lump of iron which I pulled out to inspect. It was heavily pitted but still recognisable as a felling axe head. The wooden handle had long since disintegrated but at about three pounds in weight the axe was a good find. I took it back to my seat at the head of old Johnny’s grave and used the blunt side of it to crush open the shells of my entire collection of hazel nuts. Scoffing greedily as I liberated the oily kernels I washed them down with more water, taking the edge off my hunger. I’d always loved nuts and they were surprisingly good. When they were all gone I set about honing an edge on the old axehead by rubbing it vigorously against the rough headstone. I didn’t think Johnny would mind and while I’d been eating I’d thought of an idea for its use that might just help me find my way out of this godforsaken place in the morning.

The blade of the axe soon became bright and shiny as I worked it against the abrasive surface of the stone and after a little more work the edge, although still in terrible condition was sharp enough to be used effectively. Next on the agenda was to go and find a sturdy tree branch of about the correct diameter for an axe handle. There were plenty of candidates and I soon found the perfect one. Using my new tool for the moment as a machete I cut the wood to a length of about two feet and whittled the end down until it looked like a snug enough fit for the sleeve of my axe head. Finally I split it and then fashioned a wedge to go in the split. After a bit of adjustment I forced the handle home. With the help of a few smacks on the ground to secure it tightly and a few more against the stone to bang the little wedge into place I became the proud owner of a pretty decent chopper.

I assumed that there had once been a road leading from the homestead for Johnny to take his animals or produce to market, perhaps to one of the old mining communities that must have littered this territory long ago. Despite a careful search I wasn’t able to find any signs of it at all. The tiny little brook leading from the spring didn’t give me any hope of finding the river as it disappeared into the thickest and most impassable undergrowth I could see and when I attempted to work my way into the barrier I lost track of the brook completely as it disappeared into a cleft in the ground.

It was getting late so my next priority was to set about building a camp. Using the most serviceable planks from the ruined barn and a few freshly cut poles it didn’t take me long to construct a basic lean-to against the exterior stonework of the chimney stack. The stones had very little in the way of mortar left between them so as an afterthought I prised a few of them out near the bottom and fashioned myself a small fireplace before collecting together enough firewood to see me through the night. A bed of leaves and grass topped with my blanket and sleeping bag completed the job and I considered it as comfortable a camp as I could have hoped for but I had no proper food left.

I lit my fire and put on some water to boil and then dejectedly I wandered off to harvest a load more nuts to to see what I could do with them for my supper. I found a few clover like leaves of redwood sorrel on my way back to the camp so picked them to add to my haul. By crushing the nuts into a pulp and adding water, after boiling for about twenty minutes I ended up with a milky nut broth. I added a few sorrel leaves at the end of cooking and tasted it with trepidation. It was really very good and surprisingly satisfying when accompanied by a drink brewed from the last few leaves of my precious tea. The herbs added a slight bitterness to the broth which disguised the smoky nut flavouring slightly and I hungrily devoured every last morsel.

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