Fate's Last Turn

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Chapter 33

When I opened my eyes initially I was confused and uncertain as to where I was and what had awoken me. I remained motionless while I took stock, feeling cold but not too uncomfortably so. It was broad daylight, the storm had passed and through the canopy of the tree above me I could see that the sky was a clear azure blue. The remaining snow which weighed down the twigs and branches above and cloaked the bark of the massive tree trunk that had given me shelter, sparkled and glinted beautifully in the bright sunshine. Shards of neon light danced and played in the clear and frosty atmosphere as droplets of melt water fell around me like a shower of cut glass beads. As the components of my battered brain fell back into some semblance of order the memory of the ordeal I’d been through returned with rather more clarity than I wanted to deal with so soon after awakening. I had no wish to move from my comfortable if slightly chilly position, feeling much as I used to when I was a teenager reluctant to leave my warm pit at six thirty on a winter’s morning to go out and deliver newspapers before school.

Without doubt the long and uninterrupted sleep I’d enjoyed had gone a long way towards improving my physical and mental condition. I felt almost human again, immeasurably better than I had done before passing out. I even dared to think I could make it safely out of the nightmare I’d been living for the past week. I stole a few more moments on my back, comfortably propped up against the massive deformed tree. I wasn’t experiencing too much pain any more, just the continuing headache although I felt absolutely ravenous. Being half buried in a thick blanket of snow and wrapped snugly in my sleeping bag must have served to insulate me well against the freezing cold conditions of the night. But it was time to move. I counted to three under my breath. I was about to sit forward and extricate myself from my icy bedding in order to find myself a drink and some food when I heard a noise. I couldn’t identify the sound which came from just behind the tree to my back. A couple of seconds later I heard it again.

I remained stock still where I lay, hardly daring to breathe, straining my senses and wondering what had produced the unusual sound. I could smell something, something which became more potent and disgusting by the second. An unpleasant stench which reminded me of a blocked toilet but with added undertones of rotten eggs. There was the noise again, a low grumbling growl right at the lower limit of my aural capability. Not a human sound, not wolf, something much larger. Then the mystery visitor made its entrance from behind the tree. To my horror I found myself looking directly at a grizzly bear lumbering through the snow just a few yards away. It was close enough that I could have reached out and touched it, moving nonchalantly across my field of vision with sun bouncing off the shimmering fur from which it gained its name. As if in slow motion, each time the bear picked up a paw to take another step a small flurry of powdery snow arose from the ground and fluttered in the air towards me, settling on my face. My newly discovered feelings of optimism vanished instantly and once again I feared for my life.

Grizzlies have a powerful sense of smell, apparently seven times more efficient than a bloodhound. I’d read somewhere that they tended to roll in anything aromatic that they came across in an attempt to disguise their own scent and confuse potential prey or indeed any other marauding grizzly in the area. It is an instinct that many animals adhere to, even domestic dogs. This guy had certainly been going for it. I found myself fighting not to choke on the hideous stench permeating the pristine, crisp mountain air around me. Still half buried in the snow I forced myself to remain motionless even though an inner voice was screaming at me to get up and run like hell. I knew that decision would be futile and probably fatal. There was no doubt that he was aware of my presence, he could probably smell me. The state I was in, any creature within half a mile could probably smell me and if it were not for the fact that I’d hardly eaten anything substantial for days, there would have been a real danger of me adding considerably to the aroma. I just had to hope that the creature didn’t feel threatened and wasn’t too hungry.

I could see he wasn’t the largest of bears. Grizzlies are among the most massive and powerful land mammals on the planet. Standing upright an adult male can measure eight or even nine feet tall but this fellow was less impressive, probably a sub-adult of about two years old, recently booted out from his mother’s care to fend for himself after she had given birth to a new litter. That fact gave me little comfort though. Despite his youth he was more than capable of tearing me to pieces with just a few swipes of his mighty paws and razor sharp claws. He was plump and in good condition, probably ready to hibernate once he felt the time was right but just mooching around for one last snack of some sort. I didn’t want that snack to consist of one or more of my limbs. He continued snuffling around in the snow, occasionally glancing towards me but totally relaxed about my presence. I hoped he wasn’t able to smell any of the food in my rucksack which would not only tempt his taste buds but also spark an irresistible curiosity. I racked my brain trying to remember if I’d left anything half eaten or unwrapped but I was fairly sure it was all either in unopened tins or cellophane wrapping. Lowering my head slowly to avoid any kind of eye contact I waited to see what he intended to do. There was no way I was even going to attempt fending off a grizzly with my bare hands, not even a pint sized one and certainly not in the condition I was in. I closed my eyes and tried to think of something pleasant but try as I may, all I could think of was eating stale eggs whilst sat on a blocked bog. When I opened my eyes again he was gone. I could hear my unwelcome visitor making his way noisily through the undergrowth behind me and with relief I felt it safe to breathe out at last.

I gave the young bear a few minutes to make sure he wasn’t coming back. Once certain that I was totally alone again I eased myself upright and struggled out of my makeshift bed. Tentatively I stood, keeping an eye on the route he’d taken into the trees, then began stretching and testing my joints and muscles to see if I was actually as well recovered as I hoped I was. I stamped my feet and whirled my arms around in order to get some blood circulating through my body. I felt stiff, particularly my shoulder and neck, still battered and bruised but all in all, apart from the continuing headache I wasn’t as bad as I might have been. The nausea had diminished, it was time to eat something.

After polishing off a small tin of army ration cheese, surprisingly good and strong, I tucked into some spam, contemplating whether or not I dared light a fire to make a hot drink. Suddenly a couple of rifle shots rang out in the distance. I froze, a chunk of spam half way to my mouth while I tried to work out which direction the reports had come from. The noise echoed and ricocheted around the valley walls, then a moment later there were two more. I deduced two things. Firstly, they were not aimed at me as they originated from much too far away. Secondly they appeared to come from the direction of the scene of Loopy’s death. I was surprised to think that the body had been discovered already but had to assume that it had, or soon would be. Regardless, somebody was out there and they didn’t appear to care who knew about it. I hurriedly stuffed the remaining greasy meat or whatever it is that Spam is made from, into my mouth and then gathered my things, preparing to get on my way. Hurriedly I buried my discarded empty tins in the earth under the tree. I had to put a lot more distance between myself and the cavern.

Twenty minutes later I looked back in the direction from which I’d heard the shots and saw a huge column of pale grey smoke rising into the sky. It must have been visible for miles. I cracked on with more urgency for a further half an hour. Sure enough, as I struggled on I heard the ominous sound of the helicopter far in the distance. I paused, took cover and scanned the area around the still visible smoke plume using my binoculars but couldn’t make out anything other than a haze drifting around in the normally pristine air which obscured any details. There was no doubting though that it would only be a matter of time before the cops were all over the scene of the fight like flies on a cow pat so I set off again, upping my pace, resisting the temptation to push myself too close to my limit. Time was on my side and I had to make sure I didn’t overdo it.

After the weather had cleared Ned made sure Rudy had something to eat and drink and then left him tethered to the tree outside the cave while he revisited the area at the bottom of the cliff to look at the scene he’d only had a short time to assess the previous day. Emerging from the lower entrance of the cavern he was immediately aware of animals bickering and yelping in excitement. It was a pack of coyotes, five of them tearing away hungrily at the two corpses. Ned unslung his rifle and fired two shots into the air then roared loudly, charging down the bluff as fast as was safe towards the animals which scattered in panic. A couple more shots made sure that they wouldn’t think about coming back too soon.

The Englishman’s body had been dragged further into the open by the wild dogs and the scene now presented to Ned was not a pretty one. The snow was stained with blood and chunks of meat both human and animal, all scattered around along with torn shreds of clothing. It was time to summon help but meanwhile Ned had to preserve what was left of the bodies. He gathered as much wood and brush as he could, mostly green and damp material which would burn with a lot of smoke if he could light it. Then he returned to his camp to fetch some dry firewood and kindling. Once the bonfire was going a massive pall of smoke rose into the clear blue sky, probably visible from several miles away. Ned piled more branches onto the crackling, spitting inferno, building it up until it was roaring like a volcano before making his way back up to the top of the cliff to make sure that the coyote pack hadn’t had any fancy ideas about Rudy. The mule was more than capable of looking after himself but anyway, all was well when Ned arrived back at the camp so he made himself another brew. Then he took out his flute, perched himself near the cliff edge and played a soulful tune while he waited for the cops to spot the signal fire. He hoped the music might pacify the Indian spirits and also serve to announce his presence to any other scavengers in the vicinity who might be thinking of helping themselves to a free meal. It was about an hour later that he was rewarded with the distant sound of a chopper beating its way up the valley towards him. He stood and waved his arms to the sky, partly to help attract their attention and partly with joy at not having to go back down and feed the fire with more wood.

There were two helicopters involved in the search to begin with. Known colloquially as ‘Smokey’ one and two. Based way down at Olympia they were Bell 204′s which flew up to a small aerodrome just outside Macadam and had been assigned to the manhunt for the duration. Two was not enough to cover such a large area efficiently, but resources were few and far between. Prior to the storm they had been working to a grid pattern north of the Kirby place, keeping in touch by radio with each other and with teams on the ground who had pressed some of the locals into service along with their hunting dogs.

The Kirby place had become the police control centre, having room out on the highway for the helicopters to land if necessary. The buildings, apart from the actual murder scene had been commandeered by the police as well. Maps and charts were spread on tables. Food wrappers and coffee cups littered every surface. Vehicles including press and TV vans jammed the forecourt and people milled around barking at each other, hoping to appear motivated and involved, wanting to exploit the chance to impress their superiors. The Kirby place had never been so busy.

The choppers hadn’t flown during the storm. They could have coped with the weather had they been required to fly from A to B for whatever reason but it would have been pointless to continue searching the forests and mountains in such poor visibility. The only consolation was that the fugitive would have been forced to hole up somewhere too, to ride out the blizzard. It was no weather in which to be travelling, even on foot.

The locals had been only too happy to help out with the hunt. Between them, as well as the motley packs of dogs of dubious breed and tracking ability, they turned out with an impressive armoury of rifles, hand guns and a host of other weapons. Patrol Deputy Donaghue spotted several men carrying sophisticated longbows, crossbows and all sorts of other vicious looking hardware. He logged it all in his memory and in an opportune moment he discretely made notes in a book for reference. He was looking forward to when he had time in the future to check licences and permits but for now he was happy to let them get on with the hunt. He didn’t much fancy the Englishman’s chances if any of this bunch of cut throats got to him before the cops did.

The police assumed that the murderer would try to get across the border into Canada but so far there had been no sign of him at all. The Canadian authorities were to come in on foot from the north, entering the wilderness from various points along the Crows Nest Highway. The fugitive would therefore be sandwiched between teams moving in from north and south, although nobody expected it would be easy to spot him in such a vast and wild territory.

The sheriff, after studying the maps for a while, ordered his men to head further east now that the weather had cleared. It was expected that the teams on the ground would be the first to pick up the fugitive’s trail as there was little chance of the choppers seeing much through the tree canopy and they made such a din that their presence was announced long before they arrived anywhere. The fugitive would always have time to hide before the spotters saw him. However the choppers hadn’t been in the air long before one of the crew of ‘Smokey One’ announced over the radio that he could see a large plume of smoke rising way over to the north east of their current position. The message was relayed to all units and they swept in from every direction towards the source of the smoke.

The first pilot on the scene was confronted by the sight of old Ned waving his arms and jumping about hysterically on top of the cliff. There appeared to be enough space to land safely but he had to abort his first attempt when a frenzied, mean looking mule ran at the chopper just as it touched down and tried to kick the machine to pieces. Once Ned had recaptured his animal and tied it to a tree the pilot landed successfully. After hearing what the crazy looking old man had to say, the pilot got back on the radio and sent ‘Smokey Two’ back to the Kirby place to pick up the sheriff and his squad of troopers, including the Deputy.

Ned explained in detail to the crew of the first helicopter on the scene, the exact procession of events that led to his discovery of the Englishman’s body. Within a couple of hours the whole area including the bluff, the cavern and the camp site at the top of the cliff, was teeming with policemen and Ned had to retell his story over and over again. With each retelling the facts became slightly embellished. A couple of the local conscripts who had successfully managed to find their way to the correct general area more by luck than judgement, arrived with their dogs. Ned retold his story with great relish to them all until they were eventually sent packing by the sheriff, grumbling irritably because their services were no longer required. Nobody questioned whether or not it was the Englishman who lay there with half his face and several other parts of his body missing. It was taken as read with Ned being witness to the fact. Therefore the Canadian teams were contacted and soon they were withdrawing north, over the border and back from where they’d come from.

Snow was cleared away carefully from the scene to reveal the smaller details. Any clues that emerged were photographed and noted meticulously in preparation for final reports. The sheriff berated Ned for interfering with the wolf’s body when he cut out his Bowie knife, and for contaminating the camp site with his own preparations.

Flabbergasted, Ned insisted that he had every right to retrieve his property whether or not it was embedded in somebody’s neck or not. As for the camp, what was he supposed to do? Freeze to death in the storm? The sheriff raised his voice, insisting that Ned should have left everything alone and contacted the authorities immediately. Ned finally lost his temper and refused to have anything more to do with any of them. He took Rudy’s rein and muttering under his breath, led him away towards the woods.

“Get back here you ol’ buzzard! That Bowie knife’s evidence!” shouted Deputy Donaghue.

“Ain’t now.” answered Ned, quickening his pace and continuing on his way.

“Without me you’d all be flying around in circles in them whirlybirds ’til next spring, and them coyote woulda ate all your evidence.” Ned shouted back over his shoulder.

“Stand still! That’s an order!” yelled Donaghue again, drawing his cannon from its holster and making an elaborate display of cocking it.

“Nope!” came the nonchalant reply.

Donaghue was furious. Hitching up his trousers he dashed over and grabbed Ned’s shoulder, spun him around roughly and tried to take the mule’s rein.

“What now! You want Rudy to make a statement? He discovered the body you know.” said Ned with a grin, then quick as a flash he jabbed a thumb hard into the deputy’s armpit, finding a nerve centre which produced a yelp and caused Donaghue to drop his weapon. He retrieved it from where it had fallen and had every intention of cracking Ned’s skull with the barrel but the sheriff trotted over to calm things down. He told Deputy Donaghue to put his gun away or he’d lose it for good. Donaghue turned crimson and while they were arguing Ned continued on his way.

“You want me, you know where to find me” Ned called and with that he disappeared into the woods to begin his long journey home.

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