Fate's Last Turn

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Chapter 29

I used the last of the evening light to crack more nuts and filled my pouches with the kernels. I was sick of the sight of them by the time I turned in to bed but it was a worthwhile task. I had harvested quite a haul and I knew they were highly nutritious. They would keep me going until I was able to find something more palatable. With a nicely roaring fire burning in my makeshift hearth, a comfortable bed and little chance of being surprised in the night, I went off to sleep easily. I slept like a baby until almost dawn when I was awakened by some unnatural noises. They were different to the usual night time sounds of the forest which I had become accustomed to. Crackling, spitting and hissing noises penetrated my semi consciousness but before I became fully awake there was a tremendous crash and a cloud of sooty smoke billowed from the fire place. It engulfed me and my possessions until I could see nothing at all. In complete panic I extricated myself from my tangled bedding as quickly as possible and dashed from beneath my shelter, dragging my sleeping bag and blanket behind me. I emerged from the thick smoke cloud just in time to see the stone chimney stack topple. As if in slow motion it fell away from me into the remains of the building with a crash, throwing up a new cloud of burning debris. Bloody hell! The house was on fire!

I needed no urging, dashing back beneath my shelter and hurling everything I could lay my hands on out into the open, as far from the flames as I could. While I worked I thought about what must have happened. Obviously my fire which I’d built up nicely before I went off to sleep had taken it upon itself to spread from my side of the chimney, across the hearth and into the house proper, feeding on the scattered rubbish inside. It must have smouldered throughout the night and despite the damp, rotting timbers had eventually taken hold. I cursed my stupidity as I hurriedly rescued the remainder of my stuff before it got incinerated. It dawned on me that the slow burning fire along with its rising pall of thick grey smoke would serve as a perfect beacon to anybody within twenty miles if they were on higher ground, or maybe in a helicopter. There was no point in trying to extinguish it now, I needed to get moving and fast.

The last thing I did before I moved out was to double check that my canteen was full. After the previous day’s experience of suffering from extreme thirst I didn’t want to be caught short again. Thankfully I’d topped it up from the spring before I’d turned in so, after a long last drink taken directly from the spring and with a good supply of water to carry with me, I packed everything else into my pockets and rucksack. I said a final farewell to Johnny ‘A’ muttering a quiet apology for burning down his house as I passed his headstone and hurriedly entered the dreaded forest once more.

It was imperative that I got away from the house quickly before the helicopter or anyone else in the vicinity spotted the smoke and came to investigate. Without much thought or hesitation I set off in the same direction from which I’d arrived, back through the orchard. This time though, I had an idea which I hoped would prevent me from becoming totally lost again. What had occurred to me the previous afternoon was a method of ensuring that I could travel in a relatively straight line. It would be slower progress but I planned to use my axe to emblazon an easily visible mark into the bark of a tree at about head height at least, always facing in the direction I was travelling. Then I would only walk as far as a position where I could look back and easily distinguish the mark I’d left before making another on another tree. I’d repeat the process so that I would always be able to see my previous two marks. That way, even if I had to skirt around some impenetrable obstacle, with a marker each side of it I’d be able to ensure I was still on track. If the trees thinned out a bit I might be able to go a hundred yards or more before making a new mark but I’d make as many as were required depending on their visibility. This almost impenetrable forest couldn’t stretch on unbroken forever. Sooner or later if I proceeded in a straight line I was bound to come across a stream or a river that I could follow, or better still make it to the perimeter.

In theory I couldn’t see any reason why my method would fail and blow me down it worked. Unsure of what distance I might have to travel I took my time and concentrated on not making any mistakes. One lapse in concentration might have had me going in completely the wrong direction and I could well have found myself paying Johnny’s place another visit. A couple of times I lost sight of the blaze furthest away but by turning back to the location of the most recent one I’d made, I was soon able resume the correct course. I took plenty of breaks, at times stretching out on the ground and closing my eyes until I felt mentally refreshed enough to go on. Munching away on my hazel nuts as I travelled, I found surprisingly little else in the way of food considering the richness and variety of trees. There was a lot of fungi but none I recognised as edible, a few different sorts of seeds and nuts, some berries that were well past their best. Slim pickings. No water presented itself and I rationed what I was carrying carefully. I began to wonder if the river that I suspected wound its way through these woods was in fact underground.

My new axe, even though it was so crude and in such a pitifully rusted state, was a godsend not only for emblazoning the tree trunks but at times I used it as a machete and hacked my way through scrub that otherwise I would have had to divert around. I slogged onwards for hour after hour. Fatigue crept up on me until my progress slowed to a snail’s pace but I refused to give in. Chop away some bark, walk on, turn and look back, walk on further, turn and look back, choose a tree, chop again, force myself forward. Although everything I touched felt damp there was no residual snow to speak of nor any pooled water anywhere to drink. The level in my canteen became steadily lower and I rationed my sips of water further for fear of running out but progress was so difficult and slow, not long after midday my canteen was completely empty again. The familiar discomfort of a parched dry throat returned and I wished I’d been more frugal with my water but it was an impossible balance to strike, not knowing how long the journey was likely to be or whether I might be able to replenish my supply. Drink too little and be constantly gagging or drink enough but run out sooner. Too late to worry about it. I thought back to my army training as I trudged on. It had been drummed into us that there was no profit to be gained from dwelling on things beyond our control. Live in the moment and plan your next step accordingly was the mantra. I sucked on a pebble. I’d read somewhere that it was a way of combating thirst but it did nothing for me other than hurt my teeth.

At long last in the mid afternoon my dogged progress was rewarded when the trees abruptly ended and I found myself at the foot of a steep incline. I was looking almost face on at a near vertical rock face but above me at last I could see a beautiful unbroken expanse of sky, even if it was grey. Relief washed over me and I set about scaling the cliff which was about thirty feet high. As I rose out of the forest inch by inch, the claustrophobia that had enveloped me like a curse, gradually dissipated. I’d made it! For the best part of two days I’d been engulfed by a depressing shroud of trees and brambles, hopelessly lost, starving, thirsty and exhausted. I was still ravenous, thirsty and exhausted but now at least I could see where I was going again.

Climbing the final few feet and scrambling over the lip of the cliff I rested on the edge and looked back over the tree canopy in the direction from where I’d come. I could see a distant haze of smoke rising into the overcast sky where I assumed Johnny’s place was still smouldering. Part of me wished that the fire had spread and burned down the entire godforsaken forest. The damned place had very nearly been the end of me. I turned and looked over the shallow valley in the direction I would be heading. The view looked very familiar. Surely after two exhausting days of travelling almost non-stop I couldn’t have returned to the exact same spot from where I’d first viewed that forest from hell? It would be far too much of a coincidence but all the same, I decided to watch where I stepped. The way my luck seemed to be going, if I was anywhere near the deposit I’d made the morning before I was almost certain to tread in it.

At the bottom of the valley there was no shortage of water and I quenched my thirst greedily in a small stream where I also refilled my canteen. I kept a weather eye on my surroundings as I drank, well aware that being back in the real world I was again visible to whoever was after me. A voice in my head was telling me what I wanted to believe. That my trail would have gone cold while I’d been blundering around out of sight and totally lost in the forest, but I had become paranoid. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing and as soon as I felt ready I got back on the move, planning to continue for at least another mile or two, hopefully foraging for something to eat along the way to supplement my remaining meagre supply of hazel nuts before searching out a new camp site.

I hadn’t been going long when in the distance I heard the harsh cacophony of a helicopter again. It was a sound I didn’t want to hear but had half expected. Scanning the sky I spotted it, estimating it to be about three miles away to the East, heading out towards the distant smoke and away from my position. I didn’t want to hang about though, knowing that it would have a crew aboard studying every patch of open ground and every visible trail below them through powerful binoculars. It was time to hide again. I had been following the little stream on a gentle decline along the valley floor which had widened considerably as I’d progressed. It was a reasonably easy trail which I felt I deserved after the day’s exertions but there was very little decent cover close by. I carried out a quick 360 degree reconnoitre of my surroundings and spotted what looked like a deep fissure in a cliff face half way up the opposite side of the valley to where I’d entered it, about a quarter of a mile away. There was no time to dither, it would have to do and I set off towards it at the fastest pace I could muster. The slope to the base of the bluff was steeper than I’d estimated and I was blowing hard by the time I reached the split in the cliff face above. It was narrow but I squeezed through the gap and was surprised to find that it was deeper than I’d realised and opened out into a cave of sorts. It offered me a good refuge to rest in until I was certain that the helicopter had moved well away, but it would also serve as a good place to spend my next night.

I ventured further into the narrow space, the sound of my laboured breathing amplified as it bounced off the walls. Reassured by the shadowy darkness that enveloped me I stopped and removed my pack, taking out my binoculars and then returned to the entrance of the cave to study the view. Although I could still hear it there was no sign of the chopper in the sky, it didn’t appear to be heading my way which was a relief. At least I could be sure that I hadn’t been spotted from above. Out of habit rather than the expectation of seeing anything I swept the opposite side of the valley with my bins just in time to catch sight of something moving fast towards some trees about a mile away. My blood ran cold. It was a man, there was no doubt about it. As fleeting as the glimpse had been I had registered the form of a person wearing a parka like my own and carrying a large pack on his back. As I watched, looking over his shoulder as if being chased he ducked out of sight and I lost him. Shit!

I took the binoculars from my eyes and moved back into the cave, well out of sight. In reality I was more fearful of whoever was out there than I was of the distant helicopter. He was close enough to me for it be no coincidence, definitely back on my trail. Maybe he had never lost it at all but I had no idea how he could have stayed with me over the last two days. A daft memory popped into my mind, a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid when they were holed up in their hideout in Bolivia and Butch asked Sundance,

“Hey. Wait a minute. You didn’t spot Lefors out there did you?”

“Lefors? No.”

“Oh good. For a moment there I thought we were in trouble.”

It may not have been Lefors but it struck me as odd that whoever it might be, from his body language it was obvious that he was hiding from the chopper as well. So it appeared that someone else on the run was chasing me down and making my life even more difficult. What the hell was going on? He was bloody relentless. One thing was for sure, I was going to have to confront him and sooner rather than later.

Soon the distant racket of the helicopter rotors quietened and eventually ceased altogether as it moved away. I relaxed a little and explored the rocky cave I had stumbled upon in more detail. There was an animal smell emanating from within, carried upon a strong draught which indicated to me that there might be another exit. Rummaging around in my rucksack I found the little penlight which I’d used on my early morning runs, what seemed a lifetime ago. The battery was far from new but had enough life left in it to enable me to see that the space narrowed significantly further in, turning a bend and climbing upwards as it led deep into the interior of the cliff. Squeezing through the tight passage, dragging my pack behind me I followed the tunnel until suddenly it opened right out and I found myself standing in a larger and much more spacious cavern.

The little torch beam illuminated the rocky walls and to my amazement I could make out crude paintings and symbols daubed all around. The colours were astonishing. Oranges and reds, white, blues and greens, all richly glowing as bright and beautiful as the day they had been painted perhaps centuries ago. There were hand prints of hunter gatherers long since returned to the earth from which they’d come. Suns and moons rose above obvious representations of people hunting buffalo and deer. A huge bear dominated one side of the cavern with smaller animals such as snakes and fish at his feet. Below on the stony floor were old bones and the skull of what looked like a deer, yellowed and crumbling with age. The most prevalent images by far though were those depicting wolves. Recognisable by their shaggy coats and bushy tails they were everywhere I looked. In packs numbering dozens they were depicted as silhouettes running along mountainous horizons. There were paintings of larger specimens too, alone and with heads raised to the heavens, howling. I was enthralled by it all as I passed through the cavern, my head filled with images of the ancient people who had proudly illustrated their existence here so brilliantly.

A small tunnel at the far end of the cavern showed in the gloom and led up a steep slope of loose scree. There were fresh animal paw prints in the dusty gravel which I recognised as those of several wolves of various sizes. The tunnel continued upwards until at last I could make out daylight ahead, strong daylight filtering in bright beams through the dusty air. I switched off my torch to save what life remained in the battery which in turn had the effect of releasing my own dark shadow that danced around on the rocky walls and floor behind me as I continued my climb. The final steep slope of the tunnel brought me back outside into a small, sheltered basin on a boulder strewn plateau. Among ferns and nettles I spotted bones and pieces of leathery skin littering the basin floor which was overshadowed by a solitary, crooked and ancient maple tree struggling to survive in the poor soil. Fresher than those within the cave, these remains still smelled of blood and meat and there was the additional distinctive reek of dog faeces and scent marking. Keeping low I crawled out of the filthy little basin and emerged onto the plateau itself. I was very high up on top of the cliff face, perhaps a hundred feet and had a magnificent view of the valley below from which I had climbed.

All things considered I thought that this secret place, despite obviously being used by wolves or coyote regularly, would make an excellent base camp where a desperado such as I had become, could take shelter as winter closed in. With its dual entrances and panoramic views over the surrounding approaches, I’d be hard pressed to find a more suitable hideout. As far as I could tell this place had served the First Nations over centuries for the same purpose and probably for the same reasons.

I now realised that there was no way I could keep on running indefinitely, hoping to evade my pursuers and hoping they would call off the search. I would only exhaust myself and sooner or later I would be spotted by someone or I’d get injured. I didn’t relish the thought of laying alone somewhere out there in the wilderness, freezing cold and helpless while waiting for the local predators to find me. Even if I got clean away, what was I going to do? While I was hot news my name and description would be in every newspaper in the land and probably broadcast on every radio and TV channel too.

No, what I had to do was vanish. To remain at liberty as safely and for as long as possible. The Cascade Mountains cover an area of around ninety five thousand square miles. A secret hiding place and shelter such as I had stumbled upon had to be the answer. If I left no trace of my presence and avoided any human contact, then the police’s search parameters would have to widen to an impossible extent. Eventually the trail would go cold and they would call off the hunt or at least scale it down, presuming me to be either dead or to have made good my escape. At that point, perhaps months in the future I would attempt to find a way of getting out of America for good.

Pondering my revised plan, a memory from my school days popped into my head of a vicious murderer named Harry Roberts who had slaughtered three unarmed plain clothes policemen in Shepherds Bush about ten years ago. Like me now, he was also an ex-soldier and had gone on the run utilising his military training to evade capture for ninety six days by sleeping rough in the medieval forest of Thorley Wood near Bishops Stortford, an area he knew well from childhood visits. I remembered following the story closely with my best friend at the time and with the innocence of youth, cycling over that way to see if we could track him down and claim the thousand pounds reward that had been offered. We had spent more time fantasising about how we’d spend the loot than actually looking for him, just as well. Roberts had finally been discovered sleeping in a derelict barn by a local man who had left him there snoring while he sneaked away and called the police. Brought to justice, he’d been given a life sentence with a minimum of thirty years to serve.

I couldn’t help thinking of the parallels to my own situation, although I wasn’t a cold blooded killer and rather than having to forage for food from picnic area dustbins or steal it from local people, I had every chance of living off the land in my chosen hideout’s surrounding landscape.

Ninety six days. If that murderous gobshite could remain at large in a much smaller territory than I had at my disposal, then surely I could do the same. This area was teeming with wildlife. I didn’t think the wolves or coyote would present a problem for me, they would know better than to take me on unless absolutely desperate or threatened. In fact I had every intention of exploiting their hunting prowess and stealing a kill or two from them if the opportunity presented itself. I would need meat and I wasn’t fussy whether it was a squirrel or venison, bird or fish. Bears I would keep clear of at all costs. They scared the living daylights out of me almost as much as spiders but I was again pretty sure that they would avoid any contact as long as they weren’t surprised by my presence.

Ninety six days. I set that as a target and then my mind wandered to my family at home. By now, there was a good chance that my identity was known and contact would have been made with the British police. I expected that this man hunt would have made the news internationally and my family would have been interrogated. I was certain that they wouldn’t believe a word of what I was supposed to have done but would be worried sick about my predicament. Even if I escaped from the authorities over here, the search for me would never end. My home and my closest friends and family would be monitored in case I attempted to make contact. I would be foolish to attempt to get in touch unless I found a way to clear my name and I had no idea how I would ever be able to do that.

Along with those depressing thoughts, as I rested I considered the small matter of my mystery pursuer. I was going to have to deal with him somehow before I could settle down and concentrate on surviving the winter. Just who the hell was he? I should have already worked it out but my head wasn’t right. The shock of the murders, the attempts on my life, the fact that I was so busy evading capture and staying alive, all of these things added up to more than any person would be able to deal with easily. After pushing myself close to my limit and travelling so far into the wilderness, leading such an alien existence the obvious answer to the question of his identity just never occurred to me.

I was sure that if he had been anything to do with the law I would no longer be at liberty. There had been ample opportunity for him to apprehend me or at least to signal my position to the helicopter. No, I was convinced that it couldn’t be a law man. Whoever it was had good tracking skills and was fit and fast. I’d been travelling hard and I knew I was no slouch yet he had seemingly stuck to my trail effortlessly. Therefore I also knew it couldn’t be old Ned. He probably had the skills but was far too old to be that fit and besides that, the brief glimpse I’d just had of my pursuer looked nothing like him. I supposed that it might be some local hillbilly having fun, toying with me for reasons unknown. The bastard had already taken my bayonet, an essential survival tool as well as put the fear of god into me. He must be pretty upset about my pinching his bedding but hadn’t tried to get it back the other morning. It was weird, he was really messing with my brain. All I knew was that I would have to deal with him sooner rather than later.

Ninety six days. I was only approaching the end of day four. With that thought in mind I grabbed a leafy long branch to act as a brush and began working to clear up some of the mess in the upper entrance to the cave. I wanted to lessen the awful stench and at the same time signal to the wildlife community if they returned that, as of now, they had been evicted.

Over on the opposite side of the valley in the cover of a dense thicket of trees, the unseen stalker listened to the distant sound of the helicopter recede and finally diminish to nothing. The police were searching in the wrong area. He had thought of attracting their attention with a reflection from his glasses or perhaps some smoke, but he wasn’t quite ready to bring them in just yet. His plan had evolved as time had passed but was almost complete. Tomorrow would be the day. The pursuit had been harder and he’d been forced to travel further than he’d anticipated. Things had gone horribly wrong over the last couple of days after he’d followed his quarry into that thick forest. He’d lost the trail within the first hour and then found himself in all sorts of trouble. Unable to find his way out he’d eventually had to spend a worrying night in there and thought he’d blown it. It had been pure luck that the following day, still hopelessly disoriented he’d stumbled upon the fresh marks emblazoned into the bark of some of the trees and been able to follow them until he picked up the scent properly again. The bugger deserved due respect. He’d proven himself to be a bit more wily and resourceful than expected. The trick with the fire diversion that hadn’t been visible until after he’d extricated himself from the forest had been masterful too and the cops had taken the bait.

If he hadn’t nearly lost the bastard yesterday he might have dragged things out longer which would have made everything more convincing in the end, but he was actually quite enjoying himself despite the physical hardship. Well at least he had been until the loss of his sleeping bag and blanket. Since then he’d been bloody freezing at night. The bastard was going to pay a high price for that when the time came. It had been tempting the other morning to bring it all to an end then and there, but it had been too soon and he’d had to satisfy himself with just pinching the bloke’s bayonet and scaring the shit out of him. However it appeared that the bastard had been able to find himself another blade from somewhere, he’d have to take that into account tomorrow although it wouldn’t present too much of a problem.

The man continued to scrutinise the cliff face opposite his position through his binoculars. His quarry had disappeared into the split towards the top of the cliff and hadn’t reappeared. It now looked as though it was to be the place where he was going to spend his next night. All being well it was going to be his last night on earth. This was a perfect place for what the man had in mind. A good night’s rest was in order, then tomorrow would be the time to finish it, bring in the cops and then get out of this godforsaken shit hole fast before he was discovered.

He took out a fresh tin of sausages with beans from the supply of food packed away in his voluminous rucksack and opened it with a tin opener. Using the newly acquired bayonet to stab a sausage he ate greedily straight from the tin, not bothering to make the effort to warm the food up. He continued to study the cliff as he chewed. There was no sign of any cooking or other activity going on. It looked as though the bloke was enduring a cold camp too, unaware that detection was the least of his problems.

I sat quietly and inspected the contents of my rucksack. There was no more proper food and I was getting sick of bloody hazel nuts. I still had my fishing line and hooks but didn’t have any bait apart from the fly I’d fashioned from the chocolate wrapper. I didn’t think I’d have too much trouble in finding my next meal really. It was quite a rich landscape if you knew where to look. However I was still totally pissed off about losing my bayonet. In actual fact it was a bit of a disaster. The lack of a sharp and versatile blade was going to make things much more difficult in the coming weeks when it came to preparing my food, making a trap or a snare, skinning a squirrel or whatever. At least my axe would go some way towards helping when building a fire or improving my shelter, but delicate it was not. It was another reason for confronting whoever was out there. I needed to get the knife back and I aimed to plunder his supplies too, but I would have to plan my strategy carefully.

I was ravenous again and feeling weary after the day’s exertions. To add to my woes the snow had begun to fall again but much heavier now. It was time to go and find something to eat. Even though I didn’t have an excessive amount of kit I didn’t want to lug all of it with me as I went about the business of investigating the immediate area and foraging for my supper. I packed everything except a few essential items inside the entrance to the cave, covered it with my blanket and hid the bundle under some stones to make it look as natural as possible. I couldn’t be certain that I’d not be paid a visit that evening. Hopefully if he did turn up in my absence he wouldn’t notice where I’d stashed the stuff. If he did discover it and nicked my fishing tackle I’d be well and truly struggling so I decided to carry it with me just in case, along with a couple of my lighters and my binoculars and of course my axe which I tucked into my belt. I gathered what dry sticks I could find and some larger logs from nearby in anticipation of having a good fire later on. Then I set off to see what food I could find.

Emerging furtively from my hideout’s top entrance I set off away from the cliff edge, down the opposite slope towards some trees and shrubbery where I could see signs of yet another small stream. It was only a shallow trickle really and I wasn’t expecting that there would be much in it worth catching. I didn’t really have the time to spend fishing anyway. Night was descending rapidly accompanied by a thin, damp tendrils of dreary mist. Looking on the bright side I thought to myself that at least it would serve to help disguise my camp fire once I settled down for the night. I was looking forward to being properly warm, dry and comfortable in my cave.

In the trees, at the base of a red conifer trunk behind where another tree had fallen I came across one of the few fungi that I knew without doubt was safe to eat. Some poisonous mushrooms are almost indistinguishable from well known edible ones unless you are an expert, which I am most definitely not. I had no intention of taking the risk of getting it wrong but what I had found was something I had eaten on quite a few occasions before when out on the Soltau ranges on exercises back in Germany. It was the Chicken of the Woods, the Laetiporus mushroom, a whopping great growth of it in bracket like layers, clinging to the trunk of a tree where the bark had been wounded. It is an extremely prevalent fungus, found all over the world and as its common name suggests, it tastes just like chicken. It can be cooked in the same way too so I broke off a great chunk of it and stuffed it in my rucksack. Beyond I discovered a few more nuts which to me looked like Pecans, scattered on the ground in the shelter of some trees. I gathered as many as I could find and also a lot of pine nuts. There were countless seed heads at this time of year and anything that came from a grassy kind of plant and looked similar to barley or wheat, went into my pockets too. Then I walked back to investigate the stream, following its progress until it grew wider and slightly deeper. I was hoping for some water cress but I wasn’t sure what time of the year it could be found in the mountains. Disappointingly there was none but where the stream curved sharply I found a particularly boggy area beside it and was delighted to find some bull rushes growing there.

On my survival courses I’d been told that in America they were called Cat-tails and that the whole plant was edible, depending at what time of year you used it. A survivalist’s staple. The stems I was looking at were too thick and woody to tackle and there were no fresh new shoots. The seed head was edible earlier in the year and was said to be like eating corn on the cob but it was too late for them too. It was going to have to be the roots which were tuber like and could be treated like a potato, particularly good in stews.

I pulled a few up, not an easy job but once they were out, sure enough the roots were quite thick and substantial, hopefully packed with starch. I took them over to where the stream was shallow and clear in order to wash them. As I scrubbed at the roots with my hands I had the good fortune to spot a nice surprise close to the shingle bank, hiding in the shelter of some reeds. It was a decent sized signal crayfish, like a miniature lobster. It was quite easy to catch by plunging my hand into the icy water like a heron, snatching it quickly and flipping it out onto dry land before it could give me a nip. All in all, not a bad haul and everything virtually on my doorstep.

I returned to my camp with my bounty, the thought of my forthcoming meal giving me a bit more of a spring in my step. Approaching carefully I found no sign of any unwelcome visitors of either the two or four legged variety. I checked the passage of the cave all the way back out to the cliff face but it was clear and undisturbed. While out there I scanned the view in great detail with my binoculars but could see nothing untoward so went back up to my camp and got the fire going in the cave entrance, sheltered from the elements. Emptying everything I’d found except the crayfish onto a flat rock I chopped it all into small pieces with the edge of my axe, crushed the nut kernels and added the seeds. I transferred the lot into my mess tin, added some water and got it simmering on the fire. Soon I had a thick, hot porridge of dubious colour bubbling away like a witch’s potion. I suppose in the old days it would have been classed as gruel but it didn’t smell too badly as it cooked and thickened. Next I set about the crayfish. I’d heard you were supposed to purge them before cooking. Not entirely sure what that meant I chucked it into my tin mug and covered it with cold water, then began vigorously stirring it with a stick. After about 5 minutes the water was brown and muddy. I rinsed it off, replaced the water with fresh and put the mug on the fire to boil too. The creature turned from murky grey brown to bright red and in about five more minutes was cooked. I ripped the tail off and gently pulled out the meat from within, then cracked the claws and legs to extract every last morsel. There wasn’t much but I chucked it all into my gruel and gave it a stir. Job done and it wasn’t at all bad.

While I ate, savouring every mouthful, I considered what a demanding but ultimately fruitful day I’d had and then my thoughts turned to what I was going to do about the guy sitting across the valley. Now that I had found this place I was reluctant to move on and was damned if I was going to let him terrorise me any more. I didn’t know what his agenda was but it definitely wasn’t a friendly one to say the least. Things had gone far enough. Tomorrow, whether I wanted to or not I was going to go out there and take the initiative before he had a chance to.

Darkness was imminent so once I’d finished eating, saving a little of the meal for my breakfast, I scrambled back into the cave and made my way through the passages, through the large cavern and once more out to the cliff face where I crawled on my stomach slowly and carefully, edging my head out into the fast disappearing evening light. I spent a good quarter of an hour lying there, surveying the area below and all around through my binoculars, searching for any signs of life until the light disappeared altogether. I was positive he was out there somewhere but he was doing a good job of concealing himself. Satisfied that there was no immediate danger I made my way back up towards the top entrance. As a precaution but not really knowing whether or not it would be effective, I gathered some medium sized rocks from the floor of the tunnel as I went. About twenty paces from the top exit, in the narrowest part I placed them in several small piles, balancing them precariously so that the slightest touch would send them tumbling. It wasn’t much of a burglar alarm but in the darkness it could work and might give me a few vital seconds warning if I was paid another nocturnal visit. It made me feel a little better anyway.

Getting myself comfortable for the night ahead, I turned over in my mind what might be the best way to go about putting an end to this madness. I came up with a rough plan before eventually drifting off to sleep.

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