This is part of our free, online and highly-praised survival fiction novel. You can read the rest of the parts here.
[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he winter holidays came and went. Marlee doted over her new colt, and worshiped the ground Harlan walked on. She watched over it like a brooding hen, often staring out the window for hours as the colt pranced about in its new coral.
Her father and her had built the structure out of saplings, and constructed a roof from their bows.
January was a harsh month, temperatures remained well below freezing for weeks. Marlee and her father worried over the colt, and decided to build walls for its small shed to stable the young foal. During the inclement days, he would need a straw bed, but Harlan managed only two bales when he returned that Christmas. Poor Tom struggled bringing more than the total five bales. It would have been too much for the big mule.
Marlee and her dad gathered spruce bows to lay under the sparse hay. This would form the bed for the foal that spring. It kept the young thing up off of the frozen ground during the evenings.
Harlan told Marlee that young colts will lie down quite often in their first year or so, until they gain enough strength to sleep standing as adult horses do.
He had purchased Marlee’s foal from a rancher. The same rancher Harlan had bought the big mule from years before. They had been friends for many years. Bill Mowatt was a horse rancher that lived north of Mayerthorpe in a dead end valley all alone. He was a 5th generation rancher, and with very little persuading, Harlan told the story of the young girl and her love of the animals.
Bill easily let Harlan have the colt for a reasonable price, and Harlan paid the man using his share of the gold-dust that he, and Murphy had panned months before.
After the exchange, he loaded up big Tom with as much feed and straw as he could haul, and left the ranch behind him that mid-December. They hauled a full pack, with three bales of Timothy, and two bales of straw for the animals, a supply of staples for the group. It was all Big Tom could bear. The trio hit the trail during the last moon that month. The snow lay deep, as deep as eight feet in some parts of the pass. It was passable through the trees where at times it was far less difficult to pass. The struggled along avoiding the dangerous tree wells, which could swallow a horse if one ventured to near.
It was a grueling trip, not that Harlan had not seen worse in his many decades of traveling the western mountains.
The extra weight of feed was not difficult at all for the great Mule and Tom seemed to enjoy hauling it through the deep snow. The mule only got nervous when it hung up on the narrow portions of the trail.
Harlan never took chances of injuring his two friends, he talked to the pair as if they were lifelong companions. They walked the path quietly, enjoying the solitude, and tranquility of the northern forest. Tom pulled the heavy load with ease, and the group slowly made their way back toward the valley, and their waiting friends.
When winter was finally over, the last cold snap had been more than two weeks ago. March rolled around, with temperatures returning to the near freezing point. This indicated the coming spring was finally on its way.
The few birthday celebrations and spring holidays over the winter months had lessened the doldrums of winter, and were a welcome break as the group longed for the coming spring.
The snow on the beaver pond had melted several times and refroze. It frequently pooled on top during the thaws, and then froze again. This created the perfect skating conditions for the residents. They took the opportunity to play friendly games of ice hockey. Taking advantage of the smooth ice that had formed at its center.
None of them owned any skates, but merely slid about the ice in their boots. They used homemade hockey sticks taken from the curved alder saplings growing along the edge of the pond. The beavers had conveniently chewed the bark from the choicest sticks making them look almost homemade. The sticks resembled old fashion golf clubs that might have been used when the game of golf was first invented. They made use of whatever was handy for a puck. Sometimes using frozen horse turds as these were far easier to find then chasing a bouncing puck, lost in the deep snow surrounding the pond.
Marlee thought the horse droppings were most amusing, and giggled every time she got a shot at the goalie. She would shyly smile for the rudeness and laugh.
Harlan… being Harlan, and always up for a challenge while never wanting to be left out of the activities, tried to play along… using his enormous make shift hockey stick, hacking at the bouncing puck, and despite his old age, he managed quite well.
Marlee insisted she be on Harlan’s team, and helped the big man score three consecutive goals to win the coveted Michael’s Valley cup. That was the name of the valley now, in honor of Bob’s Grandfather.
The young girl passed the puck to the old man, as if she was his star wing man. The two would race down the entire twenty-five yards of ice, passing back and forth. Harlan would pound the frozen lump toward the goal, using his massive stick, and score.
They were a team to be reckoned with. Everyone rolled about on the ice with laughter when Harlan made his final break away to score the victory goal.
Bob, liked being the goalie, and laughed uncontrollably, whenever letting them slide past him just to see the girl’s beaming smile when Harlan scored.
On one particular warm afternoon, mid-March, the group of friends crowded near the corner of the pond fighting for the bouncing puck. Hacking at the frozen lump lying in the snow. It bounced above their flailing sticks, in a flurry of snow and wood, until someone connected and sent it hurdling toward the goal.
The group scurried behind the block, each trailing behind like happy fools, and falling in a heap laughing uncontrollably at the absurdity of it all.
During one of these sudden skirmishes, a loud bang occurred and the ice sank beneath the group’s feet. The dark water bled through brown like tea, as the crack expanded all around them.
Bob, Logan and Murphy still laughing… escaped without even getting their feet wet, but the young girl… Marlee sank beneath the rotting ice.
She disappeared out of sight within seconds.
A shock spread through the adults, as their panic set in. They gasped in horror at the finality of it all. Harlan reacted quickly as he was nearest, and not hesitating, he dove head first into the frigid waters. He followed right after the young Marlee without even removing his buffalo hide coat, disregarding his own safety and the icy chill.
His great bulk forced a wave of water up and over the gaping hole in the ice. It splashed rolling across the white surface. It turned the rink dark for a moment, before it dissipated beneath the crusted edges of the pond. The horrific gap widened across the ice as a result of the day’s warmth. Their game had become too close to the entrance of the beaver lodge where it always melted first.
This is where the feed pile of vegetation gives off warmth in its decaying, and the beavers frequently travel beneath the ice creating a thinning of the ice by their comings and goings throughout the spring season.
Harlan knew this all too well from years of trapping, but the frantic game and the fun they were all having, prevented him from heeding his own notion of safety.
The deepest part of any beaver pond is usually in this area as well. It is maintained at a sufficient depth by the animals to cover their entrance, and submerge the feed pile below the ice. The beavers will dredge the area in front of their entrance to maintain a sufficient depth.
It helps deter the many predators from entering the lodge during the summer months as well, and allows them free access to their underwater feed pile during the winter.
Most times it is deeper than even the big man Harlan can stand in, usually five or six feet beyond the thickest winter ice.
Several moments slowly passed as the group stared in horror. Harlan and Marlee were simply gone beneath the rotten ice. The turbulent waters slowly stared and quieted for what seemed an eternity they watched in horror. The helpless on-lookers watched in shock as the turbulence settled.
Marlee’s father rushed toward the opening, hoping to save his darling girl, but before he could reach the boiling hole. The surrounding ice cracked beneath his feet. He did what he could, trying to lay flat. He crawled forward over the fracturing ice to distribute his weight more evenly. It was hopeless, a large sheet of the rotting ice broke free and Logan barely had a chance to push back in time before the sheet slid under the still solid surface.
Harlan, and Marlee were gone. Below the rotting ice they were struggling against the blackness trying to get back to the opening in the ice above them.
Lynda screamed in horror, “Do something Logan!” Logan, without thinking, slid into the frigid water and frantically pawed beneath the solid ice using his hands, hopelessly diving beneath the dark surface. He came up three times for air, and slumped finally over. Murphy and Bob pulled him free, nearly succumbed. The men tried to locate Harlan, and the young girl, using their sticks. However, their combined weight broke through the ice as they approached, not helping the situation.
Bob, reacted quickly, despite the ongoing panic, and dashed toward shore. He fell a dead tree, hacking at it with a nearby ax that the group had used to create the skating party’s bonfire. He pushed the tree over toward the hole in hope that it might act as a life line for the ones in the water. The branches slapped at the still waters.
Murphy next sprang forward and quickly made his way out onto the ice sheet using the tree. Lynda screamed hysterically, horrified for her young daughter. While using the fallen tree like a makeshift foot bridge, Murphy inched forward. His weight was too much for the thinning ice. He made his way toward the hole as the branches sank beneath the brown water. The terrified group milled about in horror, unable to think of what else they could do. How could such a fine day go so wrong?
Suddenly an explosion, as Harlan erupted waist high above the murky, cresting in a great splash a miracle, holding the young girl in his huge hands. He literally threw her from the water with a heroic force.
Logan grabbed for his daughter’s limp body, and immediately wrapped his coat around her, hugging her tightly and crying as she slowly came to life. The tiny girl coughed up the dirty water from her gasping lungs. She was alive…
Harlan flailed about in the brown swamp, weighed down by the massive Buffalo coat. Its bulk pulled him down to the bottom of the mire twice before he could get a firm hold of the ice. He pawed at the tree limbs too gasping, as they broke, and bent beneath his flailing arms.
Murphy extended his hand to pull in the mountain man. Harlan’s massive size was just too much for the rotting ice, and Harlan knew this. The exceptional morning was to warm. Perhaps it would have held them both earlier but, by afternoon, the sun had rotted the ice far too much.
That morning, perhaps it would have held them both, but the warm afternoon sun had rotted the ice too far. Murphy nearly tumbled in after his friend, and if Harlan had not let go when he did… both men would have ended up in the icy waters.
Even while using the felled tree, it could not bear their combined weight. The branches simply sank uselessly beneath the muddy opening.
Harlan yelled at Murphy in a great booming voice, “Get back, I’ll get out on my own.” He shouted as he flailed at the limbs.
“Get that girl home NOW,” he yelled so loud Logan jumped… realizing he was still standing there with his daughter, watching the spectacle.
The drowning man struggled to pull himself from the icy hole, and he was slowly succumbing to the frigid temperatures. Even the great Harlan Pettimore could not get out of this predicament this time.
Lynda and Logan wrapped their little girl in their dry jackets, and raced to their cabin as fast as they could. They needed to remove her wet clothing and warm the poor girl by the woodstove before she yielded to winter’s bony grip on her.
Despite Murphy and Bob’s efforts, Harlan could not be saved. Murphy managed to scrambled back to shore, as the tree was not enough to hold both weights. Harlan was weighed down by his massive coat, and simply too large to climb out on his own.
He slowly stopped struggling in the frigid waters. His heavy coat clung to him like a death shroud that might as well have been made of iron.
He fought hopelessly as each attempt dwindled in effect, barely able to keep his head above water he stopped struggling. It was hopeless for the great man. Without any way of pushing off the bottom, Harlan had no way to climb up onto the ice or the tree.
He paused panting with excursion as his breathing slowed. His strength leaking away by the deadly cold.
Harlan shivered uncontrollably. His body fought to stay warm. Icicles formed on his white hair and beard.
He looked up with a glassy stare, and spoke calmly to Bob, and Murphy,
“Now, you young fellas, I’ve been in some pretty tight spots before.” He paused to catch his breath, another tremor over took him.
His face was losing its cherry hue.
He continued, “This might be the tightest spot yet,” his chest heaving under the strain. “But… I need you two to listen to me, okay?” The men nodded from shore in affirmation.
Each dying a little inside as they watched Harlan slip away in the frozen waters.
Harlan gulped for air. It looked odd… to see steam forming on the water around the hole. It made it look as if he were in a warm bath.
“Go and get me some rope,” he tipped his head toward the cabin, using every ounce of his being. “Elly… or Tom, bring ‘em down here,” he gasped again for another breathe.
He calmed himself, and slowly continued, “bring ‘em down here to haul me out… They’ll mind you Murphy, you go quick, they know you best. You RUN… hard now, son… do as I say.” Murphy took off like a scolded cat. He covered the quarter mile or so across the field in record time.
Harlan looked thoughtfully at Bob now, “you pile some wood on that fire John, make it big… I might need to get warm after this.” He was becoming delirious, the words were an understatement.
When Murphy arrived at the cabin, he was shaking with adrenaline. He grabbed Elly’s halter hanging from the tree, and fed the bit into the horse’s mouth, then slipped it over her head.
Elly seemed to know something was up, she took the bit without any fuss, sensing Murphy’s panic in his manner.
He grabbed the lariat from the tree, and swung himself onto the painted horse’s bare back. He kicked at Elly’s sides using both heels, and blazed across the open meadow toward the pond.
The snow flew up in muddy chunks high behind Elly’s hooves as she covered the distance like a barrel racer. Murphy drew near the pond and saw Bob had piled timber on the fire in an attempt to create a raging bonfire. The flames rose high above the nearby scrub. Murphy reasoned what Bob was attempting to do. He felt the heat of the great fire approached the pond. He assumed Bob was attempting to get it ready for Harlan.
Harlan would need to warm himself as soon as he was pulled from the icy waters. The chances were not good that the big man would make it to the cabin before the icy temperatures killed him, if he made it at all.
When Murphy rode up, Bob was frantically throwing branches on the blazing fire. He knew Harlan was right, and he knew at Harlan’s age… his chances were slim that he would survive such a shock to his heart, especially after spending that much time in the icy water. Even at his great size, the waters would reduce his core temperature rapidly. He would most likely have a heart attack soon.
Elly jerked to a halt nearly throwing Murphy to the ground as she saw Harlan in the waters. She swung her head wildly up and down, and whinnied, she seemed to know instinctively not to walk out on the ice, but tried anyhow.
The paint horse pawed at the shallows, breaking the thin ice beneath her hooves, and she scrambled back with fear. Suddenly she started bucking for no reason, just sheer excitement. Murphy jumped to the ground, and calmed her. Talking to her quietly. He needed her to remain calm to pull Harlan from the waters.
Meanwhile, Harlan had grown so weary he could no longer shout at his Elly, not even to calm her. He called out to her, spouting frozen whispers through chattering teeth… making garbled noises, not words. He talked to himself incoherently now, as he slouched lower in the waiting mire.
Harlan had been hanging on by only one arm for twenty minutes or more. All the color had drained from his face… it now had a ghostly grayish hue. He was near unconscious and yet still hanging on.
Bob could hear the man’s teeth chattering as he watched helplessly. His friend was now slowly succumbing to the frigid waters.
“Harlan,” Bob yelled at his dying eyes, “Murphy’s here, you hang on, you hear me?”
Bob waited for any sign that Harlan understood. He yelled again, “We’ll get you out of there right away. Just you stay calm.”
Harlan was delirious, he seemed to be in his own world now. No doubt wrestling with death himself.
He looked like he was rapidly slipping away, and Bob knew it would not be long. He shouted again at Harlan, repeating his name over and over.
Murphy knew that training in combat had honed him to such predicaments, he often, was called to men near death. In a sense Bob, had kept them from drowning beneath their grim embrace of the war and death. Many times he had shouted at dying men in combat. It can sometimes bring them back from the abyss. When men are slipping into unconsciousness from wounds, drowning beneath that inevitable end, the medics and the corpsman of war do try, and attempt to snatch back those souls from that final sleep. Often, the medics would yell their names at their faces, jolting them into wakefulness, and turning them away from that long nevermore… that end.
Shakespeare put it as, “To die: to sleep; No more… To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub; For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil…”
No one knows… thought Murphy. He readied the horse and rope.
“HARLAN, CAN YOU HEAR ME?” Bob’s shouts were barely enough, he nodded feebly, and lifted his one arm out of the icy water… a mere reflex. It wouldn’t be long now, Bob knew they had to get him out soon.
“MURPHY HAS GOT ELLY… YOU’LL BE ALRIGHT NOW… YOU HANG ON… JUST ANOTHER MINUTE… OKAY, HANG ON.” Bob shouted at his friend. The old man nodded, looking far beyond hope.
Harlan appeared to be drifting off as if he were falling asleep.
The effects of his drop in body temperature were causing his sluggish behavior.
Bob, knew it soon might induce heart failure in such an old man as Harlan, and yet somehow the mountain man hung on. He certainly was as tough as a pickax handle, and yet that may not be enough to save him this time.
Of all of Harlan’s adventures and dangers he had faced over a lifetime, an afternoon hockey game was to be his end.
Harlan whispered things toward the sky. It reminded Bob of the first day he met the man, and how he would speak to the sky sometimes. He stared up at the sun, on that blue day… It was a good day to die… he whispered to himself. No one else could here him now…
Murphy ran to the edge of the pond. He swung the lariat at Harlan’s head. Harlan grabbed for the line but his hands were too stiff. He simply could not grasp the rope. He moved an arm but had no control over his fingers to close over the thin rope.
Bob shouted at Murphy, “Use a loop, and throw it over his head.” Murphy pulled the rope back furiously, and did as he was told. He opened the lariat, and readied himself to swing it over Harlan’s head.
Bob held up a hand to halt Murphy for an instance to first talk to Harlan. He yelled at Harlan again, “HARLAN, I NEED YOU TO LISTEN… LISTEN TO MY VOICE…” He smiled at the dying man. Harlan then looked back at Bob.
Bob, spoke carefully, “RAISE ONE HAND OVER YOUR HEAD,” Like this. He demonstrated to the big man what he meant, mimicking the motion of a raised arm. “MURPHY WILL LASSO YOU,” he nodded as he stared into the man’s dimming gray eyes, and Harlan nodded back.
He surely was the toughest man Bob had ever known.
“YOU NEED TO GET THE ROPE UNDER YOUR SHOULDER SO IT WON’T CHOKE YOU__ DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME HARLAN?” Harlan nodded again, bleary-eyed.
He was barely able to move his head, but he held on. The surrounding water rippled from his convulsions. His body fought against the cold. He tried lifting his right arm, it failed to move, the strength needed to hold on and stay above the water was just too much. It prevented him from using his strongest arm.
Bob knew that, if Harlan let go, he would surely sink to the bottom.
“Use your other arm Harlan,” he spoke quietly now, as if he were sitting across from him at a dining room table. His calm tone jolted the dying man awake again, and he smiled meekly at Bob… “Ah, John there you are,” he was delirious now. Bob knew Harlan thought he was his grandfather, John Michaels.
Harlan raised his left arm. It shook …as if he were holding some great weight above his head.
He slowly extended the arm above the steaming water.
Murphy swung the lasso at the shivering fist and missed with his first toss.
Bob shouted at Murphy, “CONCENTRATE MAN.”
Murphy quickly pulled the lasso in and readied for another throw. He used a larger loop this time, and threw it hard, and right over Harlan’s trembling limb. It fell all around Harlan’s body, ending up diagonally across his shoulder and chest just as Bob had hoped.
Murphy ran with the lose-end of the rope, toward Elly. He didn’t have time to saddle the horse before riding to the scene, and all he could do now was toss the lose-end over the paint horses back, and grabbing it under her belly he wrapped it across her chest. He held it firmly in a fist, as he steady her, patting her shoulder. Elly seemed to anticipate the move, crowding Murphy in anticipation. She nearly stepped on his foot with her nervous angst, as she readied to pull Harlan out.
Murphy held the rope fast, keeping it taught, and wrapped it in his hand. He backed the animal away from the hole, pushing her chest as he backed her up.
The animal stepped lively toward the meadow and Murphy held the Lasso firm.
She pulled so hard that Harlan groaned from the force on his chest. It was crushing him against the still solid ice surrounding the hole. Harlan wailed from the pressure. The force made Harlan come to his senses. He had stopped responding to Bob’s yelling by now, but suddenly brought back to life by the pressure on his chest.
The big man filled his lungs with one heroic breath, and let out a wild growl, like some angry bear. He shoved down hard on the ice with both arms, breaking a sheet off beneath his great weight. Elly pulled on the big man and lifted him and the broken sheet across the solid ice, like a sled. Harlan rode the sheet out over the brown water in a large dirty wave of water, and he spilled out onto the solid ice.
He cursed aloud from the pain and the cold, as the air hit his drenched body. He lay there shivering exposed. The air temperature was much colder than the water and it hit him like an electrical shock.
The true thing that kills a person in ice water isn’t just the temperature, It’s the direct contact with an inexhaustible draw of body heat such as water. Water is always above freezing, the danger is the fact your body temperature will never warm the massive body of water you are laying in, and so your body’s heat is continuously wicked away from you, and death’s cold fist slips in to claim your life.
“Damn it boys, get me the hell home,” he gritted the garbled words through clenched teeth, and shook uncontrollably.
Bob dashed over to his friend. He quickly untied the rope from his chest allowing him to breathe freely, and began rubbing his arms and legs to increase their circulation. He shouted to Murphy, “COME HELP ME GET HIM OVER TO THE FIRE,” he threw his coat over the big man’s body.
Harlan was a heavy man, and made all the heavier in his wet Buffalo coat. Bob and Murphy frantically stripped him of the massive hide, and struggled to drag his shivering body through the crusted snow. They brushed off the frozen crystals of ice from his wet leggings and laid him near the blazing bonfire. Time was of the essence to save this man’s life.
Within minutes, steam was rising from his darkened buckskins. The fire roared above the men’s heads. The flames melted the snow and ice in every direction. Melt water pooled around the fire, creating a moat that crept toward Harlan’s shivering body, now exposed to the winter breeze.
If he were left alone, he would have fallen into the growing pool and died on his own. It was forming rapidly around the bonfire. He lay helplessly, shivering, lying in its melt water. Bob slapped at Murphy’s arm, and yelled, “Let’s get some evergreen for him to lay on.”
The men split up, and ran for the nearby trees, wading through hip deep wet snow, they gathered the evergreens needed to save their dying friend. When they returned only minutes later, they found Harlan had passed out from the shock. His head had slumped to one side.
Bob shed both gloves and checked for a pulse, he quickly rolled the big man on his back. With all his might, he grabbed under his arms and heaved. He began dragging him up onto the evergreen bows. Murphy took both legs up under his arms, and lifted with all he had.
They lay him on the dry bows, and Bob raised a clenched fist high in the air and punched down hard on Harlan’s chest with such a force, Murphy thought he heard a bone break. He began CPR on his friend.
He crushed downward, pumping with all his weight, up and down, up and down, trying to revive his failing heart. Stopping just momentarily, to check for breathing and some sign of a pulse.
He repeated the procedure five or six times, then stopped to check again.
First he listened for breathing, then pulse. He repeated the steps over twenty times. Periodically checking his vital signs, but nothing…
Bob looked gravely at Murphy, but continued… determined as he went through the motions for another fifteen minutes.
Murphy suddenly envisioned Bob on the battle field, dressed in his fatigues, with enemy gunfire spraying all around him and his platoon. The vision filled Murphy with dread, it shook him back to reality.
Another twenty attempts went by…
Murphy touched Bob’s shoulder, and spoke to him calmly, “Bob.” He shook his friends arm slightly. Bob was still in a frenzy trying to revive the old man… pumping hard up and down on Harlan’s lifeless body.
He violently tossed Murphy’s hand from his shoulder, and continued. “He’s not dead,” he shouted at Murphy without looking up from Harlan’s face. He checked his eyes for life… and continued.
“Bob,” Murphy try again to calm his friend. “BOB,” he shouted at him, and touched his friend’s shoulder again. “He’s gone…let him be.”
Bob desperately pumped on the man’s chest two more times before the notion settled in his mind. His friend was gone. He gave one final blow to his chest, and slouched back by the man’s side, “Damn you Harlan, why’d you have to go, and die?”
He shook his head as beads of sweat dripped from his forehead, and stared at his friend’s lifeless stare. He whispered the words directly at his friends face, “Why did you have to die, you bastard?” Murphy and Bob sat back on their haunches …as a light snow began to fall all around them. Bob let his arms fall to his side from exhaustion, and stared down at Harlan’s blue frozen face. His mouth, gaped wide, revealing that golden tooth… that so often flashed when he smiled.
“Marlee’s going to be heart broken,” Murphy said softly to himself… as he too stared at his friend’s lifeless body. The sudden image of the little girl reminded the two men about her battle too. “I hope she’s alright,” Bob spoke calmly as if in a trance.
He looked stone-cold, stoic, even after losing his friend he was still a soldier at heart. He shook it off, and moved on. It was like so many other losses in his life, he said, “We better check on her and see how she is doing.”
The two men sat heart broken, and didn’t move for several more minutes. They pondered, and stared at Harlan for what seemed an eternity, still their dear friend did not move. The snow slowly fell, and covered his cooling body. Murphy felt gloom as the snowflakes fell and refused to melt on Harlan’s forevermore vacant stare.
“What are we going to do with him, Bob,” Murphy asked… unable to process what to do next.
“I mean we can’t just bury him, not in this frozen wasteland. Perhaps we should bring him to the cabin until spring and the thaw is here…”
They agreed, and still stared at their friend. They felt down hearted as they felt they would need to prepare themselves before telling the others of Harlan’s death. They waited quietly horrified.
How could such a beautiful blue day end this way?
Murphy reflected back to that moment long ago, when Harlan and he were coming home from the gold claim, a few months before.
“I have something to ask you Bob. It’s going to sound weird, but I think I know how Harlan wanted to be buried.”
Murphy looked oddly at the body lying there. “Some of you are NOT going to like it,” he spoke humbly as he stared at Harlan lying on the frozen ground.
He then poured it out quickly as if it needed to be said all at once, to be said correctly, all while the snow continued to fall. It seemed odd, and while watching the flakes settle on his white beard, he again realized Harlan was truly gone.
Murphy spoke the words directly at Harlan’s face, speaking softly as if he could somehow still be heard by the old man. He paused for a moment, waiting for some confirmation. Oh how he deeply wanted it, if only he would say something once more, and open his gray eyes once again…
Bob looked over to Murphy with a questioning stare, and squinted through the now blizzard of white falling all around the men…he shook his head slightly, “Why, what do you mean?”
“He told me when we were riding back from the gold claim last fall, of how he wanted it…” He paused, again, “You know to end up… finally… for him.”
Bob, shifted from one knee to another as he crouched beside Harlan’s body. “Why what did he say,” he asked Murphy waiting for the words, and somehow knowing what they might be.
“He said he hoped the wolves and ravens that had been following us that day, would feed off on his dead body. He said that to me that day; that was how he wanted to end up when he died.” To be left in the open for the animals to feed on.”
Murphy held up a finger, and smiled remembering the conversation, “As a matter of fact, I believe his exact words were as I recall them now.” They suddenly were resounding clearly in Murphy’s mind …as if Harlan were once again speaking them to him right then.
“I hope when I die, that those wolves out there, feed on my corpse. That would be how I want to end up. Let the ravens and crows, and magpies pick my bones over, let the mice nest in my skull, and the wolverines can crack my bones for their marrow. That is how a want to go out…”
“That’s ridiculous,” Bob said staring at Murphy in disbelief …feeling still aggrieved. Then slowly the look of horror, melted away from his face and he laughed to himself and smiled, slowly realizing that it made perfect sense. “I’m sure Harlan would not want it any other way, and you and I will make it happen Murphy.” Bob stood up, “Come spring we’ll do just that.”
Murphy smiled, “I’m pretty sure that I know the perfect spot, too.”
“Where?” Bob asked…
Weeks had passed by since the group had lost their friend. Marlee had pulled through the ordeal with flying colors, but she hadn’t taken Harlan’s passing well at all. She spent a lot of time by herself. This worried Lynda, and Logan. Then the day to of Harlan’s funeral had finally come. She seemed ready, and fought back tears when she saw the body again.
The group never got around to preparing the big man’s corpse over the weeks since his death. Murphy and Bob, did prepare him as best they could. His face had a sunken look to it, and his mouth had stretched into a horrible death scream. Murphy gravely said, “Marlee wouldn’t want to remember her friend in this state.”
It would be proper to hide the death face from her. The men decided to sew a canvas body bag for their friend. He lay quite stiff and prone, frozen solid… waiting on a bench that Bob had set for him, sheltered beneath the cabin’s over hang in the back.
He was now wrapped in heavy canvas, and laid under the eaves out of the weather. It had warmed, and was time for the funeral. The trail north wound past the prescribed burial spot, and mostly cleared of deep snow. It was mid-April now. The several feet of snow that had accumulated on the trail during the winter, was mostly melted, and it was ready to travel once again.
Bob, and Murphy laid out the big man on the travois pulled by Tom. The mule knew his master had died, and grieving he pulled the body slow and steady, as he headed north to the spot that the men had prepared for their friend. They had built an elevated air burial plot earlier, and by that spring day, the residents arrived with Harlan’s body, ready to pay their respects.
Marlee was dressed in her rabbit fur jacket that she and Harlan had sewn over the winter from the furs she had snared. She held a bouquet of dry winter flowers to her chest. She had made them originally for her mom last fall, but insisted Harlan should have them instead, for his funeral.
The grim procession of residents made its way north to the clearing from which Harlan and Murphy had watched the pack of grey wolves follow the elk herd many months before.
Murphy brought Bob to the exact spot last month to show him, and explained how he thought it should be prepared. The two men had cleared an area for the platform, and built it on the lower limbs of the great spruce. The same ancient tree that Murphy had lain against when Bob first found him a year ago, the same tree Harlan and Murphy stopped at when they water their horses that day the wolves were seen. The monstrous tree, was nearly three hundred years old. It was a fitting monument for any mountain man. Harlan had spent nearly his entire life in these hills, and he deserved to remain there eternally.
It was here where Harlan told Murphy of his desire to become part of the ecology in his own special way.
After Harlan’s death, Murphy had studied up on native Indian procedures, and after the tragedy at the pond, he looked up ways to accommodate his strange request, Murphy decided on an open air burial in the manner of the Crow Indians, using their burial style in the trees.
It resembled the method used by the indigenous plains Indians. The Cree and some other natives used raised platforms, some out on the prairies used stilts, and for centuries before the missionaries stopped the practice.
The Northern Crow burial however, was different, as they lived in the forested regions to the north, they used the limbs of great trees for their platforms instead of man made stilts, like those needed on the prairies. This was how Murphy honored their dead friend… by laying him in the raised branches of the great trees, as if he were an offering. Trees such as the massive spruce have spiritual significance to many tribes. The elders felt as if they had some power in them, and that no one could deny.
This burial seemed fitting, as the group gathered around the cloaked body. He lay peacefully across the low branches, as if his body was being held up in some great arms of the tree, she cradled him in her protective embrace, it was humbling to view the group gathered around their friend.
The men had selected the side that faced west, and chose the lowest limbs to the ground were the wolves might gather if they so wished, during the setting sun.
Bob knew from his trapping days, that even if the wolves could get at the body of Harlan Pettimore, they most likely would never feed on the corpse. The higher level predators rarely feed on human remains unless they are desperate. The task of consuming bodies is left to the scavengers, such as coyotes, ravens, and other small birds and animals.
No, it was unlikely that wolves, cougars, and bears would eat the remains. The whole idea seemed gruesome to Marlee at first. She respected Harlan’s wishes though, and accepted the strange request, never mentioning it again.
Again, a brilliant blue day appeared, just like the day Harlan and Marlee fell in the beaver pond. The sun was now sinking low over the west ridge. It cast long brooding shadows across the patches of spring snow, making them glow orange high on the slopes in the fading light.
The vigil gathered about their dead friend, ready to pay their last respects. Marlee stepped forward and reached up to the body first. She placed her dry flowers on Harlan’s chest, then wiped a tear from her eye. Lynda gently touched her daughter’s shoulder, and guided her back to her side so others may approach the body.
Bob was next, he placed his hand on the canvas were Harlan’s head was, and whispered a few words to him. He then backed away.
Murphy waited patiently until Logan and Lynda had paid their respects. Each person placing an item on or near the body. Then Murphy stepped up, his item was a gold nugget from their claim. He slipped it under the shroud, near Harlan’s heart.
He felt close to Harlan after their adventures at the claim …having spent a week with him up river. He felt obliged to speak on everyone’s behalf at this point.
He spoke as poetically as best he could. He began, “Harlan was a gift, like a warm Chinook wind, he blew into our lives quite unexpectedly, and melted our hearts. And just like those warm winds that melt the snow from our valley every spring. He too was welcome… as needed as those warming breezes are and now he is gone, just like those winds.”
Murphy was oddly humbled by the moment, and spoke openly.
“Harlan was probably the finest man I have ever known.” He, choke on the words, but carried on. He gathered himself, trying to continue.
“I have an old verse from a Celtic prayer… I wish to share with you all. I suspect Harlan would have liked it, or so I hope… I pray somehow he is still able to hear these words.”
Murphy pulled a small folded piece of paper from his breast pocket, and cleared his throat,
“Harlan Pettimore if you can hear me… this is for you,” he nodded at the corpse lying before him.
May the warm winds of benediction blow hourly over your hallow grave, and may the glorious songs of the wild things exalt their hymns forevermore in this your heavenly valley.”
The group lifted their heads…
“Be at peace our good friend, you will be missed.”
With that being said, Murphy lifted Harlan’s whiskey jug up, and poured out a dram of Moonshine on the ground. He then took a long drink to hide the fact he had tears in his eyes. He then passed it to Logan, and wiped his face with his free hand and smiled.
Logan took a swig, and everyone took their turn, even Lynda.
Marlee was handed the jug last of all, she just hugged the big clay jug. Murphy handed her the cork, and she silently pushed it into the mouth, and wiped her runny nose with a mitten.
She handed the jug back to Murphy, who then stepped toward the body again, and punched the cork down hard, setting it flush, to the neck. This was to symbolize Harlan’s end of life, and the last drink… his fair well. The jug must never be uncorked again. Murphy then stood it on the platform near Harlan’s head.
That was the final blow for Lynda. She fell to her knees beside Marlee. She began to cry uncontrollably, holding one hand on the Harlan’s ribs. She knew her little girl’s life, would have been taken from her that day, if it were not for this bigger than life mountain man. She whispered her thanks to the body…
Marlee began to cry too, and both girls fell to bawling as they held each other, their eyes filling with tears. The two held one another shaking beside the frozen corpse of their dearly departed friend.
Murphy reflected to himself, “a finer funeral could not be had by anyone,” and he moved off.
The golden light of dusk… crept up the distant slopes of the great western facing hills, and the men moved away toward the meadow. They gathered at the clearing near the edge of the matted brown grass, and waited for the girls to finish.
Just then, a lone and faint howl from a lone wolf began, it rose high up on the ridge, well above the valley floor. The men all tipped their faces toward the soulful music. No one seemed surprised by the event. Murphy spoke first, “That’s probably Harlan,” and the men laughed slightly.
It somehow felt probable. Nothing about that old man would surprise any of them that knew him. He had more wild in him than he had man… and of that there was no doubt.
The howl slowly subsided, like taps would be played for a fallen soldier.
“It feels odd to leave him out in the open like that,” said Bob. “Yet it still feels right, too.”
He paused as if thinking about what he had just said, repeating it again privately in his head. He smiled at the others, “You know, if it were anybody else left out like that, it would be unconscionable.”
The others quietly nodded again in agreement.
They passed a flask of whiskey around. Murphy took a big swig, and spoke softly, “I’ll visit him every once in a while, just to tidy things up if it looks, you know, disrespectful. Well, you know what I mean.” The others nodded in agreement same as they had before, and said nothing more. For there was nothing more to be said.
Marlee and Lynda came toward them still holding each other, apparently they had finished their private vigil.
“Should we get back,” Lynda looked at Logan in a way that only husbands and wives understand. Logan smiled at his wife, and winked. “Come on Marlee, you can ride on Elly with Murphy.”
Logan and Lynda climbed up on Tom, and Bob rode in the travois where Harlan’s body had lain just moments before. He sat crossed legged and comfortable. Death did not bother Bob. He had seen plenty of in his lifetime and had moved beyond the superficial idea of it. Bob moved on from death much better than those less experienced, and he had seen more than his share in his life already. He sat back, and let the orange glow fill his closed eyes.
Not many words were spoken by the group on the way back to the cabin. Marlee pointed at three noisy chickadees that had been darting about through the trees as they rode the trail home. The birds had followed the group since the funeral, and the young girl smiled at the energetic wood sprites darting about the group.
“Look,” she pointed. “Harlan sent them to follow us,” she began crying all over again, but gritted her teeth and stopped herself somehow. Tears still ran down her face, and she imagined Harlan sending them to carry his spirit back to their little spot in the valley to be with her and her family from now on.
Murphy smiled down at the little girl sitting behind him. She looked up at him. He nodded to her quietly, “that would be just like that old man to send them. You know something Marlee, Harlan told me you meant the world to him.” She hugged Murphy’s waist, and casually lay her head against his back, whispering, “I know”, and that was all she said.
The group felt the big man’s presence following them home that day, and they watched the birds flit from tree to tree, escorting the procession home, just as Marlee said they would…
April ended finally, it had brought the many expected showers. They were hard, but a welcome respite, and much better than the heavy snows the group had become so accustomed too. The showers brought a touch of spring to the valley, and soon washed away even the deepest patches of snow lying on the upper slopes. The rivers and the creeks brimmed from the run off. Their banks held fast, and the rain brought a rapid growth to the valley. Spring had arrived.
The men readied the ATVs for the coming summer. Bob had been worried about the amount of fuel that was left in the few cans they had left. Now that the Granville family had an ATV too, the supply had dwindled twice as fast as Bob had expected.
That evening the group gathered at Bob’s cabin, and sat watching the satellite TV. It showed how martial law was still in effect. The scene in the country had gotten worse since their exodus from the city of Metro. Much of their hometown was under a constant military aggression, either by the local militia or the various feral vigilante factions, not to mention the military coup that was taking place across the country. It was a confusing time for all. The nation was fractured into a hundred pieces, each piece having a different interest, a different view of right and wrong.
The Home Guard was what the local militia called themselves these days. They were local, and mostly content with guarding the vulnerable neighborhoods from the anti-fascist gangs and the vigilante groups. The rub was that the government had brought in an active force of UN troops from Europe, and even some African and Russian mercenaries were among them. They had been brought in to quell the coup started by the so-called rebels. It all made it hard to tell who was dismantling the remaining government, the UN troops or the scattered uprisings. Most had doubts there was a United States anymore, and believed their government had lost complete control of the nation.
The tension that this confusion created in the Military was too much for the leaders of their forces to endure. A coup seemed eminent. It would be impossible to suppress, as many soldiers deserted in droves. Believing their commanders were acting against their oath. In many ways it resembled the beginning of the 1860s, the nation’s last civil war.
Entire divisions had seized control of regional military bases, and using conventional weapons, took control, including the many air-force assets. Most aircraft disappeared into the night. The country was tearing apart, in every direction. It seemed largely unexplainable, to most that witnessed it, yet Bob suspected it all along, he claimed.
There were rumors emanating through the forces that recently an entire base, all of Fort Bragg had been taken by the patriots. Captured without any resistance, being controlled by rogue generals and a division of army engineers who had refortified it. They ceased the massive base, and used it to capture and align with many other bases. Even creating hidden landing strips in the mountain areas all across the nation. Most military bases had been in lock down for months prior, with high alert status. Yet now many were being controlled by the patriotic military commanders. Was it a civil war or resistance to an invasion…? That much was never clear.
These patriots, along with their commanders, felt it justified for the defense of the nation, fighting against what was seen as a foreign invasion, and the UN takeover of America.
Very little resistance was had by the capturing of assets throughout the western states, and a good deal of personnel saw it as a response to the unconstitutional take over, so un-American. Soldiers cheered when they found out they were no longer under the UN umbrella.
Bob, and Murphy decided they would have to make a run to town for fuel. They knew it needed to be soon, especially if they were to continue to use the motorized equipment, the ATVs, augers or chainsaws. They had grown to rely on these items, they were hard to give up. Murphy considered distilling fuel for the group, as Harlan showed him before he passed. If only he could convert the engines to ethanol, he wondered? For that he would need parts from town too, carburetor parts he didn’t have, new jets, and seats for the engines.
The group considered a covert mission to Misty Lake… first to get fuel to make a run to Metro. Their plan was a reconnaissance of the valley and then raiding its resources. Murphy considered the fact that they were the aggressors now, stealing resources for themselves.
The fickle philosophy of survival… Somehow it seemed okay for their group to steal supplies from the enemy.
First they would check the fuel tanks at the gas station in Misty Lake, and then the bulk tanks at the boat launch before making their way into Metro for supplies. The added fuel would make it much easier to travel the 150 miles to town.
Murphy and Bob hoped to have Logan and Marlee escort them to Bob’s jeep. Then, using Harlan’s animals, to drop them off. They would make a run to the east, and Misty Lake, stealing fuel for the mission. The idea was to drop them, and take the animals back home after the drop off.
Murphy and Bob would hit the valley for resources, and head to Metro. After the mission, they would rendezvous back at the same point in two weeks’ time. They could then move the fuel, and whatever else they gleaned from the city to their valley.
Bob had stashed his Jeep under cover months ago, it lay hidden in the bush under a camo tarp. He parked it far off the main trail, hidden behind a picket of brush that he had cut and stacked around the vehicle in a hedge.
The two men pack their rifles, and Bob threw a spotting scope in his pack. The plan was to move into the neighboring valley during the night, navigating by using the topo map. They both carried tools for the mission, bolt cutters, vise-grips, a hacksaw, an ax, and other odds and ends to facilitate the acquisition of the fuel, and whatever supplies they could find. It was a raiding party…
The mission was to acquire the truly needed supplies by any means necessary. It now seemed crucial to the survival of the group, at least for maintaining any reasonable comfort.
Bob had created an electric transfer pump. He built it for the purpose of acquiring fuel. It used a 12 VDC in-line lift-pump, and thirty feet of gas line. It was designed to simply be lowered into any tank, and then using the small portable batteries from the Quads, it could pump fuel out of holding tanks, and into jerry cans for transportation.
When Murphy had made his trip over the valley gap many months before, he had spotted two above ground bulk tanks by the boat launch. These Bob considered were most likely empty. They were stationed off to the side of the boat launch, but by chances theirs was also below ground tanks at the gas station. These he reasoned would still contain fuel.
Bob reasoned that no one at Misty Lake was smart enough to expect them to have fuel below the pick-up lines. These extraction lines were usually left several inches off the bottoms to prevent drawing in any water and corruption that settles there.
To the gang, the pumps would appear empty, but below ground the tanks would still may contain several hundred gallons, depending on their size. The men anticipated that the tanks would not be guarded well if at all. Using Bob’s makeshift transfer pump, they would be able to access what was left at the bottom of these tanks.
If what Murphy reported about the chaos of the Misty Lake gang was true, they would never suspect they were in any danger of losing fuel that they never knew they had in the first place, as far as they were concerned they would appear to be completely empty.
The group loaded Harlan’s old pack saddles with their gear, taking only what they needed for the mission. The men studied the maps sitting at the kitchen table that night. They carefully went over every detail, until they knew the plan inside and out. They were ready…
They would take the trail north to Bob’s Jeep, and fuel it with what they had left from the quads. Then they would drive along the gravel roads too within a mile of the Misty Lake resort, hide the Jeep under some brush, and proceed on foot to the outskirts of the resort village. There they would wait until dark, and make their move into the village undercover.
Bob had ten empty Jerry cans in all, and they were tied to the sides of the two pack animals. There was just enough room for the rider to slip their legs under the roped cans. It looked as if the horses were now being used as some strange desert camel with red cans tied all around them. The idea was they would not come back until they filled all 10 cans of fuel and topped up the jeep for summer use.
All the while, they were to keep an eye open for a small trailered fuel tank. They hoped to commandeer one for future needs and, if possible, to tow it back to the valley for long term fuel storage. They expected to find one at a cabin at Misty Lake resort and take the oil furnace tank, and use it for a storage tank by mounting it on Bob’s tiny trailer. They expected one of the quads could handle it if empty, as-long as it was no-bigger than 100 gallons in size. It would be easy enough to tow if it were empty of fuel. They would make multiple trips to fill it, using the Jerry cans and horses.
They packed a tent, and food for their trip, including plenty of ammo for the rifles. The idea was to move at night to avoid all the check stops whenever practical.
As a precaution, Bob had two large ABS pipes permanently wired under the frame of his Jeep. He used these to hide contraband weapons and ammo. They were hidden beside the trucks frame. They were attached firmly beside the frame one on either side of the drive shaft. Most check stops would likely miss the tubes, unless the guards were using search mirrors to look under the vehicles. Bob knew they used these search mirrors when looking for difficult hiding space, and sometimes the men would even lie under the vehicles using a flashlight on the big trucks. This Bob hoped would not be the case…
The next morning, he and Murphy had breakfast and prepared themselves for the mission ahead. They drank two pots of coffee and waited for Marlee and Logan. Neither man was particularly concerned about the mission yet. Both men sat calmly, sipping their hot brew in silence.
A sudden sound of footsteps was heard on the porch. “Hello, camp,” Logan shouted at the door.
Bob, and Murphy jumped to their feet and grabbed their small day packs, and without ushering a word then greeted Logan and Marlee on the porch.
The weather had deteriorated to such a point it fell slanted in gray curtains, the animals stood still as statues, waiting under the protection of the trees by the creek. They had been packed and ready to go before sunrise.
Marlee blurted out, “Can I ride Elly?”, as she dashed toward the paint horse. The men just looked at each other, saying nothing. The occasion was solemn. Logan turned to Bob, “Are you ready?”
“Definitely,” he quickly answered back, and hurried down the steps. His reaction was very military, showing absolute confidence. He strapped his gear on the lead animal, “We best get going.”
“I hope to be back in two weeks, I expect you to meet us this time then, right where you drop us.”
Logan knew the plan well, and just nodded at Bob for his assurance.
Murphy stared blanked faced into the morning rain… he was certainly glad he wasn’t going to do this mission alone this time, but felt suddenly apprehensive. It was an unpleasant start to the day, that much was sure. He felt confident at having Bob along this time, but feared heading into Metro with all that he saw on the news. The fighting seemed to be far worse than the authorities were letting on.
Everyone climbed astride the two animals, and Bob kicked Big Tom to life. He and Logan sat atop him, and headed up the north trail.
Right away Elly, fell in behind the big mule. Marlee, turned and smiled at Murphy as she always did, “Here we go,” she said with a grin looking up at him with excitement. Murphy smiled back.
The ride was quiet, as hardly a word was spoken between the group. There was just the sway of the animals, and the rhythm of the trail measuring the pace of the riders. The group made their way up the switch backs of the high mountain pass. It was a steady climb.
Finally, they arrived at where Murphy had come over into the valley nearly a year ago. They had reached the top. Murphy glanced out over the edge. It was the spot he had fallen from, remembering that day when he first arrived almost a year ago.
He recalled his broken leg that day, and grimaced thinking about it. He leaned over the edge, and rubbed his thigh just above the old injury, and kicked at Elly to hurry her along.
The trail had begun to get wet from the torrential rains. The horses hooves slopped in the mud as they trudged along. Murphy focused on the massive tracks left ahead of him by Tom’s huge steel shoes.
The mule had no trouble pulling the small load of Bob and Murphy’s gear behind him. He had grown accustomed to hauling the travois over so many years. Tom took everything in stride it seemed, he was an amiable beast with steadfast determination.
Marlee turned to Murphy and ask, “Are you scared, Mr. Murphy?” Murphy hesitated a moment, before answering, “A little, Marlee …Who knows what we might find in town, but I’m not too worried. Bob is a trained soldier, I’m sure he won’t do anything to get us into trouble. Don’t you worry okay, we’ll be fine.” The little girl smiled back at Murphy, and graciously straightened up looking like a proper equestrian rider. She was prim and proper atop of Elly, the reins in her hand just so.
Murphy smiled down at the young girl, admiring how she had adapted to her new way of life after martial law. It’s amazing how children adapt to any environment. When stability is offered, they see no wrong in the world. Even without stability they seem to cope, knowing no difference in the world. That is the secret of mankind, we cope no matter what happens to us, or what world we are handed.
When Bob, arrived a year ago, he had moved the fallen tree by the main road. The one used to hide the trail entrance. He drove up the trail, replacing it behind him, and made his way to the valley gap. He then drove to nearly where Murphy had spotted the white tail buck, cresting the ridge almost a year ago.
The group found Bob’s jeep well hidden off the trail. They saw the brush he had piled around it, it was covered very well behind the picket. But the brush had now died off, looking odd against the new growth. It did not blend well with the buds of spring that now began to form on the living trees nearby.
Murphy was thankful the rain had slowed to a drizzle, and he removed the wet tarp, as Marlee held the horses steady. The men unloaded the gear into the jeep, then set about starting the dormant vehicle. Bob slapped the steering wheel, and pumped the gas three times. He turned the key, and the engine unexpectedly roared to life with the first try, almost as if it had been waiting all winter for the chance to run again. Bob petted the steering wheel, “That’s my baby,” he said, and smiled to the others.
He climbed out of the Jeep, and turned to Logan, “Well thank you my friend, remember to meet us here in exactly two weeks, okay? Bring supplies in case you need to wait a day or two. Who knows what we may find, to slow us down.”
Logan shook Bob’s hand, “Not to worry, I’ll be here if it kills me.”
Logan shook Murphy’s hand next, “Good luck you two, we’ll be here.”
“Me too, I’ll be here too,” Marlee chimed in. She was already sitting on Elly’s back, ready to go.
“Let’s go Daddy,” She was keen to hit the trail, excited to be riding by herself for a change.
Logan smiled at the men, for his daughter’s naivety. They watched as the two men climbed in the Jeep and drove down the steep trail toward the dump road, and headed east toward the highway and the Misty Lake valley.
Marlee finally saw the reality of the situation as she watched them go, “Do you think they’ll be okay, daddy?” the little girl asked appearing somewhat worried.
Logan smiled at his daughter, and cheerfully said, “I’m sure they’ll be fine, young lady, now let’s get these animals back home, and get some feed in them.”
“Okay,” she kicked the horse with her tiny feet and the two headed back south trail toward their valley.
Before it had gotten dark, the men came upon the Misty lake road. It aimed southward toward the village. Bob knew the Lake was more than ten miles ahead, and they would need to ditch the jeep at some point, and continue on foot.
The plan was to wait until dark, make their way into the resort, and observe the village from the trees. Their first stop would be the gas station, to siphon its underground tanks. When they arrived, they would cut the locks on the fill-caps, and drain whatever they could using the electric transfer pump. Then stash the cans out of sight. They knew it would require several trips to retrieve the full cans on foot afterwards, but this was the safest way to do it undetected.
Bob’s only worry was whether the small quad batteries would hold a charge long enough to do the job. He knew he could always recharge them using the Jeep’s alternator. He had set up some jumper cables under the hood for this job as they drove. He hoped to get twenty or thirty minutes of pumping time out of each of the ATV batteries. That should fill most of the cans that night.
The men cautiously approached the rundown gas station. They noticed a dim lamp light coming from inside the store front window of the manager’s office. Bob held up his fist, indicated to halt… then using his open hand, he indicated for Murphy to get down low. Murphy set the cans down behind some bushes. He followed behind Bob, staying low to the ground, then slowly moved forward to check out the station. They needed the blackness of the night, made their way toward the station.
Moving with purpose, they slowly made their way toward the large window. Both carefully stayed beyond the line of sight from anyone inside. Bob had taught Murphy the basics about recon work. Spending the entire evening before vigorously going over their plan. This glitch in the plan was surely not expected, yet Bob’s instincts adapted to the situation. No recon will ever go as planned, he had told Murphy, “You need to adapt to the situation, use your head, and above all else stay cool.”
They moved close to the window, and clung tight to the wall. Murphy put his hand down on some broken glass, and quickly pulled it back. Bob turned to Murphy with a concerned look, and made a downward motion with his open palm, indicating to stay low and be quiet. He commenced to move forward, then held up his fist again. Murphy stopped as Bob approached the window alone. He moved slowly like a sloth pocket. It was like watching one of those time elapsed video shots. He slowly retrieved a signal mirror from his pocket, holding it up to the lower corner of the window. Crouched under and off to one side, he lifted it up to the glass.
He used the mirror’s reflection to observe anyone inside of the office. It allowed him a view, and did not expose himself to anyone who might looking out at that moment.
Murphy was astonished at how slowly Bob could move, it must have taken an entire minute for him to inch the mirror forward, looking up and over the window sill. Murphy noted his deliberate stealth… determined to practice the same tactic himself from now on.
How that moment shook Murphy. A wave of anxiety overtook him. Only a year before he was chained to a desk in a high-rise in down town Metro, now he was endangering his life for survival.
Bob, again moved slowly as he pulled the mirror back. He gave Murphy the sign to back away. Then turned toward him, and pointed two fingers at his own eyes, and held up a single finger, indicating he saw one person inside. He slowly swept his two fingers toward the way they had come, indicating they should move off to the bushes again. Murphy led the way back to the tree line.
When they arrived, Murphy whispered, “What do we do now?”
“I’m not sure,” Bob said. He thought about the situation for a moment. He shook his head in confusion, and shrugged. “We can wait here a bit and see if he goes to bed, or maybe leaves. I’m not even sure why he would even be here.”
The men settled in and made themselves comfortable beneath the overhanging limbs of a pine tree. They waited as time slowly crept by. Both tried to stay alert, and quietly discussed strategies, they ate jerky to keep from falling asleep. The hours went by with slow boring precision. Suddenly, the lamp dimmed inside the station. The men sat up, waiting. Nothing happened, the person did not exit the gas station. He did not move from the chair either. “What’s he doing now?” Murphy asked. “Well he must be living there,” said Bob.
They watched for another hour, then Bob motioned to Murphy that it was time to move in. “He may have gone to bed,” Bob said.
The plan was for Bob to watch the station, and the occupant, as Murphy filled cans. He was to keep an eye on the transfer pump from the trees, while the cans filled. Filling each one at a time, waiting and watching from the trees. It certainly was going to look odd to anyone with a lone can sitting in the middle of the turnaround, but not as odd as five cans would appear to be. Murphy then would return each filled can to the woods, one at a time. Retrieving them later when they were done. They planned this in case, they were spotted, and they needed to escape. This way they might get away with most of the cans. Murphy began topping the Jerry cans off when Bob gave the signal. They hoped to fill as many as they could or until the big tank was drained.
Bob’s job was to watch the store in case there was trouble from within. If the man inside spotted any movement outside, Bob was to intercept him, either by creating a diversion (and allowing Murphy to escape), or fighting off the gang as Murphy escaped with the gear. They could then return for the hidden Jerry cans in the woods later.
Murphy moved quickly, while crawling low in the shadows. Only two cans were filled when the first of the two batteries had died. The pump stopped working, and at first Murphy panic, before realizing what had happened. He was beginning to use his head for himself finally. It was time to hook up the second quad battery to the transfer pump.
Bob laid back against the flaking stucco wall of the gas station, and whispered into his throat mic, “How’s it going, Murphy.” Murphy looked up to his friend, and gave Bob the okay sign.
He continued monitoring the fuel transfer. Bob flashed back a thumbs up to Murphy, and moved toward the window of the office again. He then froze… stopped by some movement inside. He whispered to Murphy, “Get out of there, someone’s coming.”
Suddenly the door opened beside Bob, and the man from inside stepped out into the darkness. He looked about the turnaround. Apparently he did not see as Murphy’s foot darted under the cover of the pine tree. He lit a cigarette, carefully shielding the flame. The orange glow grew in his cupped hand.
Murphy watched this, and slowly crept further back into the bushes. He left the fuel can by the filler opening, he only had time to disconnect the terminal of the pump from the battery. The man hadn’t noticed Bob crouched beside him, or the can in the darkness. The man’s eyes hadn’t adjusted to the darkness yet. Bob waited motionless behind a garbage can next to the door. It was just too dark for the man to see well. The flame of the lighter had temporarily blinded him. In the man’s mind Bob was just an unfamiliar shadow next the door. A black shadow…
He drew hard on his cigarette, making the ember burn bright. He stepped away from the doorway then let the door close behind him. At that moment he noticed the Jerry can in the middle of the turnaround. Bob realized everything was just about to go sideways, and quite quickly… he stood up. The man let out a short gasp, and Bob grabbed him from behind. He held a combat knife against the man’s Carotid Artery, and whispered.
“Don’t move, don’t say anything,” he spoke quietly, “I won’t hurt you.” The frightened man stiffened, and a gradual puddle formed beneath his trembling leg. He carefully shook his head in affirmation, and tossed his cigarette in front of him to hold his hands up in surrender. The cigarette threw sparks as it hit the ground.
Bob again spoke softly to the man, “Is there anyone else inside? Just nod,” he whispered in the man’s ear again. The frightened man did what he was told and shook his head slowly side to side.
“Alright,” Bob said. “You and I are going back inside. Now I want you to move with me slowly.”
The two backed into the station. Bob pressed the call button, on his radio. “Murphy I’ve got a situation up here, check the can… how much longer are you going to be?” Murphy rushed out to check the can, lifting it up to feel its weight, “I…I don’t know… I think the tank is running dry, and this may be the last one,” he whispered back over the radio.
Bob closed the door behind the man and him. “Okay finish that one up, and head back to the truck with just two of the cans, I’ll follow you later.” “What about the other cans,” Murphy squawked back. “I’ll grab the other cans, when I come.”
Murphy didn’t know what had happened, and asked, “What’s going on Bob, that’s not our plan, over…”
“I’ll let you know later just do what I say,” he sounded stern, and Murphy knew something serious was going on.
“Okay, but how are you going to carry the extra cans?”
“Never mind that__ just do as I say,” he sounded angry, and Murphy decided not to push him for answers.
He topped up the remaining can coiled up the transfer pump line, and headed to the tree line of the parking area. Murphy moved quick as he could.
He packed the gear in the rucksack, and gathered up two full cans, and started down the road toward the jeep. He was worried about Bob… but held his head fixed, and steady looking straight ahead as he hurried along. He was focused and strained against the weight of the cans. “Damn, I hope he’s alright.” For now all Murphy could do was move toward the jeep.
He stopped to rest several times, yet sped along the darkened trail as best he could. The shadows sometimes seemed to leap up in front of him, throwing him off with visions of crouching person’s. He couldn’t help but see shapes in the trees. Sometimes they reached out to him. The woods had a life of their own. It was only his imagination he kept telling himself until logic told him to disregard the images.
The cans were around thirty pounds each, and he had a mile to go to the Jeep. A nagging thought kept occurring to him during his grueling march. He laughed, “Perhaps we should have parked closer.” He grumbled this to himself several times, but with good humor carried on. Murphy knew it was certainly safer to park so far away, and by the time he got to the vehicle his neck muscles were burning from the pain of carrying the heavy cans. He dropped them at the trailer, and rubbed his shoulders. He swung the cans up into the back of the Jeep trailer, and grabbed a quart water bottle, inhaling a drink. He only paused to catch his breath…
He called Bob on the radio, “All clear, are you coming this way?”
There was no answer.
Murphy repeated the transmission, “All clear, are you headed this way.” The ear piece crackled, “I can’t talk now, hang on…” His voice was soft… it went quiet as if he were whispering the words over the throat mic.
Murphy held the radio away from his face as if seeing it at it arm’s length would help him to know what was going on. He was worried things had gone totally wrong. Perhaps Bob was caught in something he couldn’t handle, and was now in trouble. He considered heading back. He would take the Jeep in case he needed to get away fast. He could drive right up and snatch Bob’s guns blazing.
He laughed at the foolish idea. He didn’t know what to do. “Damn it Bob,” he cursed. He figured that if something tragic happened he’d need to go back to the valley by himself. How would he lead the group from now on without Bob? First Harlan was gone, and now Bob…
Murphy began pacing back and forth in the dark beside the jeep. He muttered to himself, “What the hell do I do now?” He paced, glaring at the trail head in the looming darkness. “What the hell should I do, I better not call him again on the radio, he may be hiding from someone, right near him.”
Murphy reasoned that if that were true, the noise from the ear buds might tip off anyone… near enough to hear, even a faint noise might reveal Bob’s hiding place.
He decided not to take that chance. He would not call again. He would wait for Bob to contact him first. He knew that it was going to be a painful wait. The not knowing was killing him.
“What the hell Bob, what’s going on? Call me, buddy.” Murphy whispered into the blackness as he stared down the trail for any movement.
An hour went by, with still know word from Bob. Another hour crawled by… slow, grueling, moving like that bad day drags on for a condemned man.
Murphy turned back towards the Jeep… quietly a faint crack from a branch came from the nearby bushes. It startled him, but he did not react.
He froze, then slowly reached for his rifle lying across the front seat. A blue beam of light caught him directly in the eyes. “You won’t be needed that buddy.” Murphy froze: it was Bob. Then two forms appeared from the shadows. Bob lowered the flashlight. In front of him was the man from the station. He carried two of the three Jerry cans. Murphy pulled the rifle down from the Jeep, and pointed it at the man. “It’s okay,” Bob said. “He’s catching a ride with us to Metro.”
They casually walked by Murphy and the man smiled at him, and shrugged sarcastically. Murphy stared as they walked past. The captive hefted his two cans into the jeep, and held out his hand to Murphy to shake.
“I’m Simon, you must be Murphy. I’m pleased to meet, yeah.” He then quickly scrambled into the back of the Jeep, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” The man bounced up and down, as if he were checking it for comfort.
Murphy slung the rifle over his shoulder.
“What the hell is going on here?” he asked, and turned to Bob.
Bob jumped in the driver’s seat. He turned over the engine and pulled the brake release. He looked at Murphy’s face, still enjoying his stunned look:
“You better get in, Murphy.” Murphy shook his head and quickly swung around the back of the jeep to climb in the passenger seat. Bob grinned at his friend, and stepped on the gas.
The trio sped off down the trail. Bob wheeled the Jeep hard onto the road, and headed toward Metro. He explained the situation to Murphy as they drove along the gravel road:
“Well it turns out the gang was using this poor guy here as their personal slave. So he was making a break for it. He was hiding out at the station tonight until it got dark. Then he was making a run for it.”
“It took some convincing before your friend here bought the whole story,” Simon piped up from the back seat, “those bastards never figured I’d have the guts to head out on my own, so they weren’t watching me very closely. Turns out they were wrong about me,” he leaned forward between the seats and smiled with a twinkle in his eye. “I fixed them, I sugared their truck tanks before I left, no worries about any one following us for a while.” Simon, leaned back in the Jeep seat with a satisfied grin of accomplishment.
Bob added, “I was just about to leave with him behind, when, wouldn’t you know it? Two big no neck clowns showed up, and decided to confront Simon here. He told them a long story about being sent to get boat parts for Brent, the gang leader. They listened for a while, and Simon spun such a tale they finally moved on.”
“Where the hell were you all this time Bob?” still looking astonish by it all.
“Oh, I was standing just out of sight behind the door next to Simon. Mind you I had my AR trained on the two meat heads through the wall, but they seemed satisfied with Simon’s story and moved on… and here we are.”
Simon leaned in again as they hit the main gravel road headed East toward the highway.
“Yeah that could have gone sideways really fast if they hadn’t had left, eh…” he laughed sounding a bit unhinged to Murphy. He punctuated the outrageous story by slapping Bob’s shoulder, “Holy shit, you’re one lucky son of a bitch, Bob…”
With that, Bob dropped a gear and roared the engine, as they sped away from the Misty Lake resort. The trio sped down the dump road and made their way toward the highway. They were glad to put some distance between them and the east valley gang.
The moon had risen, and the night lit up bright and cool as the three men flew down the back road running with their lights off. It would allow them to move along the roads without easily being detected.
They drove without their headlights on, whenever they saw approaching lights they slipped into the ditch, and laid low until they passed.
With martial law being in effect, there was nearly no one on the roads. Bob feared military patrols might be waiting in the darkness along the edge of the highway. It was standard procedure to catch travelers as they passed by. He knew they would need a better plan to get to town then to just drive straight down the highway. The closer they got to the city, the more the check stops appeared ahead of them. Most were easy to make out as they were all lit up by arc lights. Their glow could be seen for several miles before the came close.
After some strategic detours around the first few check-stops, the trio were able to dodge them all together. The Jeep moved swiftly over the back roads, and detours. Murphy leaned back in his seat, he was now casually watching the stars and rising moon as if it were following the Jeep through the country side.
A great white light, shone off the hood of Bob’s Jeep. The moon lit the landscape with a magical silver light. It strobed over the interior of the vehicle, as they sped along, re-emerging in flashes behind the trees as they traveled the old country road.
They were in farm country, and Bob hoped that this would allow them to use the hidden back roads, to scoot around the many check-stops, and outposts. Each way-point would be mapped and plotted for future runs. Bob’s new outlook for survival was they need to make periodic trips to Metro for supplies.
The trio periodically stopped at intersections to plan their next move… They waited and watched quietly. Sitting in the middle of the countryside, Bob sometimes shut off the engine, to listen. There was very little danger of anyone coming along, so they enjoyed a surreal moment in the night’s silence, listening to the void above them, and enjoying the brilliant evening sky over their heads.
Simon had a backpack with him. He brought it for his escape. He reached for it, and hauled out a bottle of eighteen year old Scotch. He held it up in the moonlight, and offered a drink to his rescuers.
Bob smiled at Simon in the mirror, “Well, well, you are full of surprises.”
Simon had stolen it from his captors’ liquor cabinet …Just before he parted ways with the gang, Simon uncorked it and inhaled a luxurious whiff from the bottle, then a long pull…
“Ay that’s what I’m talking about. A wee dram Mr. Murphy?” He bumped Murphy’s arm with the bottom of the bottle waking him from his funk as he watched the heavens above him.
Murphy glanced back at Simon, who was gripping the neck of the bottle as he pointed the base of it at Murphy. The adrenaline of the evening had left the men a bit numb. He reached for the bottle, and wiped the neck with his sleeve then tipped out a good draft of the contents. He looked back at Simon surprised, and smiled knowingly.
“Oh that’s the good stuff, Simon, thank you.” he then handed it next to Bob, who without hesitating skillfully took the bottle, accepting a drink while still driving with one knee. He first held the bottle up to their new friend in the back seat, and offered a toast to their new friend, “Cheers fellas,” he tilted the bottle back, all while watching the road rise up ahead of him in the moonlit night. He squinted a wary eye around the brown glass as he drank deeply. Bob felt reckless that evening, he needed a good swig to straighten his head out after the excitement.
He knew it was going to be no mean trick to get to into Metro and to his house. There was something he wanted to pick up there, and he was determined to make it by morning. Besides the obvious, getting more fuel for the group he wanted something else. He thought it might help the residents, or so he hoped…
The moon shone bright above the jeep as it sped down the silver ribbon of road toward Metro. A long cloud of dust spun off the gravel surface. It rolled off into the ditch and out into the woods as the men flew along the dirt surface. The shadow of the jeep disappeared off into the distance.
Simon had been to town many times before during his captivity by the Misty lake gang, he knew these back ways even better than Bob did. He could point out turns and T intersections well ahead of time, sometimes showing them ways that even the topo map did not show. This helped the group tremendously in their moving about the back roads in the moon light.
They were able to completely avoid the main check stops, each time rerouting their mission using Simon’s guidance. They moved about far back in the hills beyond the outpost, and using Simon’s directions, and the obscure logging trails they managed to avoid all of them. Bob stopped the Jeep near the outskirts of town, the glanced over the city from a hill overlooking the gloomy valley below them. Much of the city was in darkness. All street lights and traffic lights were out. Just the glow of scattered fires lit the once vibrant city.
The trio looked in awe at the ruined city, “Well this is it, let’s get‘er done boys,” Bob hit the accelerator and they sped down the hill toward the town…