Life Expectancy Page 22


Unable to conceive of an alternative that might be any less insane, I continued climbing, feeling more like a monkey the higher I went.


My hands grew cold. The unlined gloves in one of the parka pockets would provide a small measure of warmth, but they would also interfere with my sense of touch and the flexibility of my grip. I preferred to bring my hands to my mouth and warm them with my breath.


Worse than chilled hands, my left leg began to ache, throbbing like the root of an abscessed tooth. In warmer weather, I'm never aware that surgical steel accessorizes my leg bones, but sometimes in the winter, I am able to discern the location and precise shape of every plate and screw.


When I figured I was two thirds of the way up the slope and had not seen a flashlight or any other indication of a man on his way down, I paused. Certain that my footing was secure, I rose to full height, the better to survey the crest of the slope, which still lay over a hundred yards above me.


Even if the Hummer were parked along the shoulder, I didn't expect


to see it at this severe an angle. I thought I might detect the aurora of its headlights or parking lights, but the crest was defined only by the faint gray ambient glow of the open snow-filled sky over the highway.


I didn't believe that the attacker would have left the scene. After being so determined to stop us, he would never have driven casually away. And if his intention had been to kill us, he wouldn't trust in that steep but negotiable hill to have done the job.


Patience is required of a good pastry chef, but occasionally mine was short even in the kitchen. Standing there, waiting for our assailant to reveal himself, I grew as irritated as I sometimes did when making creme anglaise from egg yolks, sugar, and milk, which requires steady stirring with a wire whip and low heat so that the yolks won't scramble.


My yolks were starting to scramble, in a manner of speaking, when a rushing sound came from overhead. This was not merely a quickening of the wind but something formidable plummeting from the high canopy of branches.


Considering that as a student I'd had no head for history, Greek or otherwise, I thought it strange that I should think of the razor-sharp sword suspended by a hair over the head of Damocles.


I looked up.


Pale, cutting the air with a whoosh, many blades descended in an arc, but softer than steel: pinions forming a six-foot wingspan. I saw luminous round eyes and the sharpness of a beak, heard its familiar question-"Who?"-and knew it was an owl. Nevertheless I cried out in surprise as it passed over me.


Scouting for forest rodents, the great bird swooped north-northwest, descending with the slope, gliding soundlessly now. It crossed the trail that the Explorer had made on its downward journey-and sailed past a man whose presence had until then not registered with me.


Even to dark-adapted eyes, visibility was poor in those woods. The patchwork of bare earth and faintly luminous snow had the eerie quality of a dreamscape, seemed always to be shifting, as if it were a black-and-white mosaic at the bottom of a slowly, slowly turning kaleidoscope.


He stood thirty feet north of me, maybe twenty feet downslope, visible between trees. In mutual stealth, we had passed each other, un aware.


Although brief and not loud, my cry had revealed me to him, and the owl had drawn my eyes to his silhouette. I could see no details of him, not even the fleecy collar of his leather coat, just an unmistakably human form.


I had expected him to reveal his position with a flashlight. He couldn't possibly have followed the Explorer's tracks such a distance in gloom as deep and deceptive as this unaided by a lamp.


I wondered if he could see me at least as well as I saw him. I dared not move in case he hadn't yet pinpointed the source of the cry that had alerted him.


He opened fire.


Back at our house, when he had first gotten out of the Hummer, the weapon had resembled military ordnance. Now the distinctive acketta-acketta-acketta of an assault rifle confirmed the initial impression.


Louder than whip cracks, high-powered rounds lashed trees to the left and right of me.


Astonished that the spray of bullets between those two hits had all missed me, I took no comfort that this was not one of the five terrible days on Grandpa Josef's list.


I stood rooted like one of the evergreens. For a moment it seemed that Jimmy Tock, man of action, would do no more than dump an abundance of biological end products in his pants.


Then I ran.


Racing all but blindly south across the slope, I wished the majestic trees grew closer together. I weaved among the huge trunks, seeking what cover they might give, chased by another extended burst of gunfire, a death-drum para diddle in which any beat could mark a bullet in my back.


I heard the thock when a tree was wounded, the zing of a ricochet off a rock. Something whined past my head, and I knew that it wasn't a bee.


The profligate use of ammunition might be a mistake. Even an extended magazine would quickly run dry at the rate he was tapping it.


If he emptied the rifle without bringing me down, he would have


to pause to reload. When he paused, I'd keep moving. He'd lose track of me.


Having lost track of me, he might go directly to the Explorer and kill Lorrie.


That thought tripped me. I fell over the unthinkable and landed hard on one shoulder, face in the cold reality of snow prickled with evergreen needles.


I rolled, not by choice, propelled by the momentum of the fall. Tumbling downhill, I knocked knees and elbows against stones, surface roots, and frozen earth.


Although I had fallen into this tactic, staying low and in motion seemed to be smart. After a few revolutions, however, I realized that if I rolled into a tree at the wrong angle, I might break my neck.


The clumps of undergrowth were sparse and widely separated, but if I thrashed through one, a stiff dead stick could put out an eye. Thereafter, I'd be half as likely to see that plummeting safe when at last it dropped on me.


I came out of the roll, grabbed at tufts of dead bunch-grass, at a tangle of withered ivy, at rocks, at anything that might slow me down. Scrambled to my hands and knees. Got to my feet. Ran in a crouch for a distance until I wondered if I needed to run anymore, and stopped.


Disoriented, I scanned the woods, found the colorless landscape as deceiving to the eye as ever, and tried to quiet my breathing. I didn't know how far I'd come: most likely far enough to have escaped him for the moment.


I couldn't see him, which I figured meant he couldn't see me, either.


Wrong. I heard him running toward me.


Without glancing back, I hurried south once more, across the face of the slope, following a serpentine path through the trees, repeatedly stumbling, skidding, recovering my balance, staggering from side to side, hurtling forward.


When he didn't at once open fire, I assumed he was either out of am


munition altogether or hadn't taken time to reload. If he no longer had the advantage of the weapon, it might be smart to turn and charge him. He wouldn't expect such boldness.


A sudden field of loose stones provided bad footing but gave me an idea. If we were going to wind up in hand-to-hand combat, he might have a knife or a lot of training. I needed an equalizer. Among the stones underfoot were larger rocks.


I stopped, stooped, at once put my hand around a rock the size of a small grapefruit. But as I stooped, another burst of gunfire shattered my fragile plan.


Even as those whistling whispers of death spoke inches above me, I left the rock where I'd found it, crabbed in a crouch across the shifting stones, slipped between two trees, dodged left, dared to stand in order to gain speed, and ran off the edge of a cliff.


Cliff is an exaggeration, but that's what it felt like when my right foot met empty air, and then my left.


Falling, I cried out in shock and dropped about fifteen feet into a bristling yet soft mound. On impact, I recognized the sound of rushing water, saw surging torrents laced with phosphorescent foam, and realized where I was. And knew what I must do.


The assault rifle had been cutting the night when I stepped off the brink, and if the gunman had heard my shout, he might have thought I'd been hit. To encourage that misperception, I screamed once, as horribly as I could, then again, weaker and with what I hoped sounded like agony.


At once I sprang up and, staying close to the bank, hurried ten feet uphill.


Goldmine Run, which is bigger than a stream and smaller than a river, originates from a hot artesian well that forms a steaming volcanic lake in the mountains to the east. Hawksbill Road bridges it; this western slope receives it.


The channel is narrow, no more than twenty feet wide, forcing a deep stream twelve to fourteen feet across. By the time it gets here, the water is no longer warm, but because the bed of the run is so steep, the rapid currents resist freezing even in an unusually cold winter. An almost whimsical fresco of ice, formed from spray, appears only along the edges of the run.


A gunshot man, falling into those waters, would be swiftly swept into the valley below, tumbled and battered en route.


The banks did not slope down to Goldmine Run but were concave, a pair of bracketing parentheses. An embedded web of tree roots prevented the overhang from collapsing.


Ten feet upstream from where I'd fallen, I sheltered under that earthen cowl, knee deep in a wind-deposited pile of decaying leaves and evergreen needles like the mound into which I'd fallen. I pressed my back to the bank, with my feet buried in mulch, confident that I could not be seen from above.


Even in this frigid night, here the crisp air had a faint scent of moldering vegetation, thin threads of foul odor that would be much riper in spring and early summer.


I longed for my work kitchen, the aroma of baking pie crusts, the comfort of meringue.


I didn't try to quiet my breathing. The splash and chuckle of the rampant water would mask those sounds.


No sooner had I taken cover than immediately to my right, a foot from my face, a drizzle of dirt, small stones, and dead leaves fell past me. The rifleman must have dislodged them as he stepped to the brink above.


I hoped that he would see the force of the tumbling water and assume that, badly wounded, I had fallen into Goldmine Run and been


swept downstream, either to bleed to death or to drown, or to die of exposure.


If he descended into the water-carved channel to search the narrow shore, I would be as exposed as a single decorative cherry perched atop a chocolate cake.


Another dribble of soil and pebbles suggested that he either had shifted his weight or might be on the move.


In truth, I doubted that he would clamber down the bank for a closer inspection of the channel. From his higher perspective, he probably wouldn't realize that under his feet lay a concavity just sufficiently deep to shelter a man, and he would figure that he could see well enough from his superior position.


At this point, I did expect him to produce a flashlight and sweep the channel, but the seconds ticked past with no disturbance of the darkness. This seemed peculiar to me. Even from down here, when I studied the plunging torrents, I could see pale rock formations along the shore and others midstream that might have been the slumped form of a wounded man, or a corpse. You would think that such a determined gunman would want to know for certain whether his target had been eliminated or merely wounded.


My sense of time might have been distorted. Terror plays havoc with your inner clock. I hadn't been counting the seconds, but I felt as though I had been hiding there for a minute, perhaps longer.


I quickly grew impatient. Maybe I was not a genuine, certified man of action, but I wasn't a man of inertia, either.


If I came out of hiding too soon and discovered him gazing down at me, I'd be shot in the face. Although a certain stubbornness is in my lineage, I'm not as obstinate as Grandma Rowena. In my case, there was no chance whatsoever that, meeting at high velocity, a bullet would fare worse than my skull.


On the other hand, if I waited too long, the gunman might get too


much of a head start for the Explorer. Lorrie hadn't been with me, so if he knew that she was pregnant, he would expect to find her in the


SUV.


Call it a premonition or just a hunch, but I suspected that I was of peripheral interest to him, an annoying fly to be swatted, and Lorrie was the primary object of his interest. I didn't know why. I just knew.


When I stepped away from the bank, out of the knee-high compost and from under the overhang, I half expected a sudden light, a cruel laugh, a shot.


Rush of water, brush of wind, shrouds of darkness, deep forest waiting ... No shadowy form stood at the brink above.


Cautious because I feared stumbling and falling into the violent current so near at hand, I moved downslope along the bank, searching anxiously for an easy way up, preferably an escalator.


My left leg had taken a lot of punishment. The implanted steel seemed to throb. I limped.


Like gray bones, knobs of bedrock thrust from a Section of the bank, entangled by the exposed roots of a tree. Even with my aching leg, ropes and a ladder could not have served me better.


At the top, I crouched, scanned the murky woods. No deer, no owls, no sociopathic gunman.


Instinct told me that I was alone. Instinct serves me well when I'm creating new recipes; therefore, I decided to trust it also in these circumstances.


Although forced to limp, I could move fast. I set off through the trees.


I had gone some distance when I began to feel confused as to direction. The contours of this higher land seemed to have shifted while I'd been below.


The highway lay uphill, of course, to the east. Consequently, west lay directly downhill. Goldmine Run lay south, behind me. The Explorer waited west of Hawksbill Road and north of my position.


Clear enough.


Yet when I rounded another tree and weaved between two more, I found myself back at the stream and almost plunged off the bank again. Knowing where all four points of the compass were, I had nevertheless wandered in a circle-and in no time at all.


Having lived in the mountains all my life, in a town besieged by forest, I had heard stories of even experienced outdoorsmen going lost in bright daylight and good weather. Wilderness-rescue teams searched for and extracted these bewildered and embarrassed hikers on a regular basis.


Some poor souls were neither bewildered nor embarrassed. They were dead. Mortally dehydrated, starved, bear-bitten, cougar-slashed, broken in a fall... In Mother Nature's gruesome collection, the instruments of death were numberless.


Any six acres of wilderness could be a thwarting maze. Every year or two, the Snow County Gazette carried a front-page story about a hiker hopelessly lost for days, though he had always been within a half mile of a highway.


I have never been an intrepid woodsman. I love civilization, the warmth of a hearth, the coziness of a kitchen.


Turning away from the wordless prattle of racing water, I strove frantically to comprehend the primeval patterns of the wildwood. I ventured forth hesitantly, then with greater haste, though ^with more trepidation than conviction.

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