Fate's Last Turn

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Chapter 32

Despite my keenness to put as much distance between myself and Loopy’s corpse before it was discovered, I only managed a mile or so before my physical condition began to further deteriorate and eventually get the better of me. My legs which had been like jelly from the moment I’d set off, were now completely devoid of any strength at all as I staggered over the rough and icy terrain. My battered skull struggled to contain the relentless bombardment of pulsating pain from within. The agonising, continuous throbbing felt as though it would split my crown wide open. As I walked I held my head between the palms of my hands as if it would help keep it together. I felt nauseous, my stomach heaving at the very thought of taking on board more food even though I was aware of the need to boost my energy level. It was essential that I loaded up with more calories. I had plenty of food to choose from but it would have to wait until I felt more able to keep it down.

Eventually my resolve weakened until I reached a point where I knew I was close to my limit. The weight of the larger rucksack I now possessed containing my enhanced selection of supplies, bore down on my shoulders relentlessly. It appeared to weigh a ton even though there probably wasn’t a lot of difference in the actual weight from my original pack. My injured shoulder was a constant reminder of the battering I’d undergone and the ever present temptation to fall asleep was overwhelming despite my being on the hoof. Before long I decided it would be prudent to find myself a decent hiding place in which to shelter before I collapsed. There was no getting away from the fact that I was suffering the effects of concussion and needed to rest up for as long as it took for me to at least partially recover. I believed I had plenty of time to make the journey to Canada slowly but safely, once I regained some strength in my limbs.

As I laboured on hoping to find an appropriate spot to camp, the snow began to fall again, lightly at first but then with a renewed vigour until I had difficulty seeing very far at all. I began to wonder if I’d made a catastrophic mistake in leaving my secure and warm hideout before I was healthy enough to make good headway. I’d felt it imperative to leave in case the helicopter returned and spotted the bodies at the foot of the cliff but I doubted that it would be in the air now because of the worsening conditions. A much thicker blanket of snow was forming on the pathetic excuse for a track that I had been following so I abandoned it and headed deeper into the trees where there was more shelter, but before long I hit a wall as far as my endurance was concerned. My legs just melted from beneath me and once more I slumped down onto my knees, breathing heavily but without the strength to rise again. The pounding in my head reached a crescendo and even through the swirling fog within my brain I was aware that I was close to passing out.

My chin was resting on my chest, too much of an effort even to raise my head but by swivelling my eyes to the right I spied the towering bulk of a giant monster standing stoically defiant in the worsening weather. It was a Douglas Fir, its huge trunk twisted into a torturous shape, probably from a lightening strike way back in its history. The bark was split, scarred and gnarled. Huge, craggy and misshapen serpentine roots had erupted from its base forming an unruly matrix which in time had plunged into the acid soil and found fresh nourishment to resupply their mutated host. In time, perhaps over centuries, the tree had recovered and grown into the leviathan I was now drawn to.

I dropped forward from my kneeling position onto my elbows and with the last pathetic residue of my strength, dragged myself inch by inch through the snow towards it in the semblance of a leopard crawl. It was only a few yards but it took an almighty effort to reach my goal. Once there I removed the rucksack and rolled onto my back, wedging myself into a recess between two of the massive roots, hugging the bag to my chest. The rough textured bark felt reassuring against my back as I sat there protected from the worst of the elements by the tree while I did my best to recover. With trembling hands I released the buckles and opened my rucksack, removed the sleeping bag and wrapped it around myself, not even having the energy to straighten it out and crawl into it properly. There I remained, exhausted and motionless, unable to muster the strength to rummage into the pack for something to eat. My eye lids drooped and I found it impossible to resist a moment longer. The lights dimmed and then went out completely as I plummeted into blissful unconsciousness.

A couple of miles away, Ned Clayton raised his grizzly weather beaten face to the sky, screwed his eyes into a squint and assessed what was occurring above him. He didn’t like what he saw. Leaden snow clouds floated ominously above the tree tops below a slate blue black sky. The clouds moved fast and unpredictably like water heated to a rolling boil in a big pan. Swirling and tumbling in a hypnotic fashion they contorted and flowed, seeming to rise and fall from low to high altitude in the sky like giant ocean waves. It was a scenario that Ned had witnessed many times in this area and not one he relished. Known as the ‘lake effect’ it occurred when cold air whipped up snow clouds over the still relatively warm lakes and rivers running through the deep valleys, drawing in moisture and generating localised snowfalls on the surrounding higher ground. The phenomenon could create intense squalls in one area while leaving nearby locations virtually unaffected. On the occasions Ned had been caught out in the open and too far from shelter, he had seen falls of around six or eight inches dumped in a single hour which built up and drifted in the wind to several feet in no time at all making progress virtually impossible.

Ned always travelled with good snow shoes tied to the side of his pack mule in the winter months and was reassured by the new pair he’d made recently for himself as the cooler weather approached. The shoes were constructed from willow, steamed and bent in his home made steam box. Woven with rushes and reeds with rawhide straps to a design he’d developed over many years. However he would always rather avoid using them unless there was no other choice. Travelling on snow shoes was incredibly hard work compared to normal hiking, particularly for a man of his age.

Ned continued to gaze into the heavens. Snow flakes the size of silver dollars drifted down, swirling and dancing in the light breeze before settling on his eye lashes and bushy eyebrows, coating his thick grey beard. The intensity increased, blotting out the sky entirely at times. Unable to tell if he was going to avoid the worst of it or whether he was about to be swamped, and not wanting to trust to luck as good luck appeared to have deserted him of late, Ned tapped into his vast reservoir of local knowledge and his thoughts turned to the old Indian cavern he’d found in this area several decades ago. It wasn’t a place he liked to visit. He wasn’t a religious man but he did have a spiritual side to him. He imagined that the indigenous inhabitants of this area over centuries had considered the cavern a sacred place. Perhaps important rituals had been performed within its confines. Whatever, Ned always found it intensely eerie thereabouts. It put him on edge and so he never loitered in the area, preferring to keep moving until he’d put some distance between himself and the spooky location, never able to relax until it was well out of sight.

However Ned wasn’t stupid and over the years his priorities had changed a lot as age had begun to take its toll on his endurance capabilities. It made sense to seek out the best shelter within reach and quickly. He preferred the risk of upsetting a few ghostly spirits rather than finding himself up to his waist in bone chilling snow. It wasn’t far, perhaps a mile or two and therefore he put his reservations to the back of his mind and set off at an increased pace, leading Rudy along behind him who seemed just as keen to escape the impending snow storm.

By the time Ned emerged from the woods and hurried across the broken land towards the steep bluff which he knew concealed one of the entrances to the old Indian cavern, the snow was falling even more heavily. It swirled at high speed in the unpredictable eddies of wind which formed as the air rushed between trees and smashed against the rocky outcrops, disorientating Ned and restricting his vision. Concentrating on his footing with head down, raccoon skin cap pulled low over his ears Ned had the long tail of his hat wrapped around his neck to prevent warmth escaping from his collar and to keep the snow out. He thought of the countless times he’d had to explain to the inevitable cheeky student found in every audience he’d ever given a talk to that it wasn’t just there for decoration. Nothing he carried with him was without a purpose. He would then go on to explain how in the same way the raw hide fringes attached to the seams of his buckskin shirt had a wealth of uses in the field, such as repairing snow shoes or tying poles to construct a shelter when other materials were sparse. The other students would put on a serious expression and nod their heads to confirm that of course they already new that, then frown condescendingly at the person who’d asked the question as if he was an idiot. Ned smiled to himself at the memories. He could tell those city folk anything he liked and they would hang on every word because of his ability as a story teller.

Suddenly Ned was jolted from his meandering thoughts, back to the present moment as his foot slipped on the surface of what he’d taken for a large snow covered flat rock. It didn’t feel much like a rock under his moccasin, it was far softer and had no texture to it. Looking down he was surprised to see an area of glistening black fur exposed by the skid mark he’d caused. Brushing away more snow with his gloved hand he revealed the corpse of an enormous black wolf. It lay there not yet frozen stiff, still intact apart from a badly crippled front paw. Ned recognised it straight away as belonging to the rogue wolf he’d had to scare away from the Englishman a few weeks before. He considered to himself how much better things might have been if he’d let the wolf take the murdering scum. Three other lives would have been saved for a start and he wouldn’t be out here in the snow freezing his butt off, trying to track the bastard down.

“Well I’ll be damned!” Ned hissed through clenched teeth.

Even more shocking than stumbling across the creature at all was the fact that the hilt of a big knife, instantly recognisable as his own Bowie knife stolen from him back at the Kirby place by the Englishman, was sticking out of the dead creature’s neck. The carcass hadn’t been predated upon at all as far as Ned could tell so couldn’t have been lying there for long.

Ned’s first reaction was pleasure, he treasured that knife but then his face flushed in panic as the meaning of what he was looking at hit home. The Englishman must be close by! He spun on his heel with the intention of grabbing his rifle from its scabbard on the back of the mule but Rudy had wandered off. He was several yards away, pawing at the snow with his foreleg and whinnying under his breath as he was prone to do when wanting to communicate something. Ned drew his spare hunting knife from its sheath, scanning the immediate vicinity as best he could through the relentless blizzard of snow. With eyes darting side to side he nervously walked backwards to Rudy’s position. Once there he grabbed his rifle and quickly levered a shell into the chamber. With a bit more confidence now that he was properly armed he continued his frantic surveillance, his weight lightly poised on one heel, turning a full three hundred and sixty degrees, ready to let fly at anything that moved. A minute or two later, once as certain as he could be under the circumstances that there was no immediate threat, he looked down at the ground to see what Rudy was making such a fuss about. Ned’s blood ran cold. Staring back up at him, still almost entirely covered with snow was the mangled but unmistakable face of the Englishman with his unusual, splinter patterned eyes seemingly looking right through him and off into infinity.

It took a second or two for the facts to register coherently in Ned’s mind but after brushing away more snow from the corpse and taking stock of the horrendous injuries thus revealed, looking from one body to the other and up to the cliff towering above, Ned formed a fairly accurate picture of what must have happened.

“Well I’ll be damned” he muttered to himself once more.

Despite the turn of events it wasn’t the time to be hanging around with the weather closing in as rapidly as it was, and there was nothing to be done for the Englishman now anyway. The fugitive murderer wasn’t going anywhere and there was still a way to go to reach the top entrance to the cavern. Rudy couldn’t climb the cliff and even if he could he wouldn’t have been able to squeeze into the narrow lower entrance. Ned knew of a wild goat track further along the base of the bluff which led more gently and diagonally up to the top which Rudy would be able to negotiate comfortably. But firstly he had the task of retrieving the Bowie knife from where it jutted from the wolf’s throat. Despite the urgency of getting under cover and out of the storm there was no way that Ned was going to abandon one of his most treasured possessions so he set about freeing it from where it was lodged. The hefty blade however had other ideas. It was stuck fast, hammered between two vertebrae and driven into thick cords of sinew and tendon which refused to surrender their hold. It might just as well have been locked in a vice. No amount of pulling or levering would release it from the deathly grip. Cursing loudly Ned was forced to remove his gloves, withdraw his hunting knife once more and for a further ten minutes, carry out some deft butchery before finally the huge blade was liberated. Wiping both knives clean in the snow, Ned replaced them on his belt and with relief put his gloves back on, leaving the macabre scene and heading for shelter.

Half an hour later the old man and his mule had arrived on top of the cliff and stepped down into the basin surrounding the upper entrance to the cavern. Once Rudy was unburdened and settled inside, Ned set about building a fire. He found the small store of fresh firewood that had been recently gathered and an old axe close by. Further inspection of the camp area produced various items of discarded gear and a rucksack which had obviously belonged to the Englishman.

“So this is where he hung out.” said Ned to himself as he gathered the items together and stashed them out of reach of the weather. Getting back to grips with his own situation, it wasn’t long before he had himself settled comfortably in the shelter of the cave with a hot brew and a meal. Although unlikely to sleep well in that spooky place, he was prepared to remain there for however long it took for the weather to clear, relaxed in the knowledge that the Englishman was no longer a threat. Once suitably refreshed, he took out his Bowie knife to inspect the blade and then began working with a small whetstone to bring it back to its former razor sharp condition.

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