Harry chose this place for its promise of solitude. So far, it more than met his requirements and exceeded his expectations. Someone put this shack here once; perhaps seventy, eighty years ago. Its roof kept the weather out better than he had any right to expect, and the walls remained upright. He found half a dozen windows broken when he came to look around during the summer. Now, several months later, he was glad he bothered to fix them while the sun shone, filling the frames with the best parts of some wood the last owners left behind when the draughts eventually caught up with their weary bones. Goodness knows how long ago that was.
Winter arrived quickly in this part of the world. Even with a full complement of windows, darkness sat heavily across the property for most of the year. In its current state of disrepair, it felt like living in a coffin.
While those hands didn’t build the place to last, it was all Harry had for now, and he felt almost glad of it. Only rarely did he express any form of gratitude. Under current circumstances, he felt no inclination to change.
Soon it would be night. He knew it would be another cold one. Better bring some more wood in to keep the fire going. He never quite got used to the wind howling around the building even though, at this altitude, it paused only briefly, like an army regrouping before its next assault. He preferred it to the wolves which interrupted his sleep and, when he eventually dropped off, came for him in his dreams.
Before the last of the daylight disappeared over the short summit behind the old place, he remembered to prepare what remained of his candle. The batteries for his torch gave out more than a week ago, and now he was down to the scrapings of already melted wax to get him through until, well, he didn’t know when. He pushed a small rolled-up piece of cardboard into the wax to replace the wick. That usually worked tolerably well once he got it going, even in the thin air up here. Usually, the little stub burned for about half an hour before it needed resettling in the bowl.
If anyone owned this place, they didn’t make a habit of coming over to check it was still upright. When Harry got back here, he was nervous about lighting a fire in case anyone saw the smoke from the town. Looking down the hill in daylight, he decided it was too far away for anyone to notice and he needed to take the risk. A line of trees about two-thirds of the way down obscured most of the view, and lines of sight work both ways.
There wasn’t a whole lot of firewood left by the burner. Better bring some more in. Whoever lived here before must have really enjoyed chopping up wood. The lean-to at the back was full of it. Most of it was dry, too. He covered it with a tarpaulin when he was here before to keep it that way and was glad he did.
He winced as he got up out of his chair. That ankle didn’t feel like it was getting any better. He grabbed the stick he found which served him so well over the last mile he covered on his way here and heaved himself towards the door. While carrying that under his left shoulder, he could only manage a few branches, or a medium-sized log, under his right arm. Usually, he had to make several trips to carry enough for the next day.
The ground was slippery from recent downpours, and now it had just started snowing. Once back inside, he dumped the wood in the corner where the bag he left behind on his way over here should have taken pride of place.
On the other side of the hill, north-west along the river for about twenty miles, then about the same distance farther on down the road, was the small town he recently arrived from. Once a week during the last three months, he studied the van rolling up outside the post office and filling it up with money. After watching it once or twice, he convinced himself he could empty the post office again with the minimum of fuss and disturbance. And that, he duly did.
He walked in, pulled the gun out of his pocket and marched out again less than three minutes later with the same number of bullets in the gun in his right hand, and a bag containing the weight of a small child in notes and coins in his left.
Just like in movies, a bell started ringing loudly the moment he stepped into the street. Long before the law arrived, the bag was on the back seat, the key in the ignition, and he was away. With only one route out of town, his foot hit the pedal hard, and he kept it there until the road split into four, giving him the best chance he’d ever have of reaching his hideout.
With no-one in sight, he kept hammering the car as hard as he could and made it almost as far as the river when he saw the blue lights in his mirror. They were a long way behind. At this rate, he expected to make it easily. As he swung around the corner, a tyre caught a rock which had fallen into the road. When Harry drove straight into it, the thing stayed precisely where it was.
The tyre, as is their way when they meet boulders the size of medium-sized mammals at speed, lost the round with a single knockout punch. The rest of the wheel crunched along the tarmac until the accompanying metalwork, Harry and his bag, piled into a patch of woodland several hundred yards further along the road. The lights and sirens were much closer now. He guessed he had, at most, a two-minute start.
Harry took one last glance at the bag on the rear seat, blew it a kiss farewell, and ran as fast as he could towards the trees.
It was maybe a quarter of a mile to the river. He could hear the water to his left and headed directly for it. The cops would have guns and no qualms about using them. Hopefully, the loot in the car would slow their operation down for a minute or two. They wouldn’t want to leave it there while pursuing him on foot.
He was almost at the water when he heard the barking.
Wondering whether the Hollywood trope of dogs being unable to follow a scent through water had any basis in fact, he jumped in and almost passed out as the cold tore into his body. He wasn’t much of a swimmer, but knew his only chance was heading to the other side and into the undergrowth before his pursuers arrived and spotted him.
This tributary of the river wasn’t wide, relative to its big brother down the way. Maybe two lengths of the pool he learned to swim in when he was young. He had never swum while wearing clothes before, let alone after running for several minutes. And he had run nowhere during the last fifteen years.
One more push, he kept repeating under his breath, one more push.
Many, many pushes later, he dragged himself onto the bank, took three or four stumbling steps towards a ditch behind a row of scrubby bushes, and fell, face downward, straight into it. The blood pumped so hard into his brain, he couldn’t hear anything else. When the thumping finally quietened, he listened carefully. Nothing but the sound of the river so far. He raised his head a little and looked through a gap in the undergrowth. Nobody there. Lifting his body, he extended his line of vision up and still no sign. They wouldn’t give up yet, he knew that. He also guessed it wouldn’t take long to identify him from the cameras in the store.
It wasn’t the first time he’d pulled this sort of stunt, and certain branches of law enforcement knew him well.
The rest of his plan held firm, for the moment at least. Get up the hill to the shack and lie low until the next big idea arrives. Hopefully, that would be better than the last one.
Guessing he had around four or five miles to walk until reaching the boat, he sat for a while on the driest piece of ground he could find out of sight of the water. Pulling off his shirt, he wrung it out as best he could. It made little difference. There was a change of clothes in the boat and the thought left him feeling almost cheerful. As long as he didn’t catch hypothermia before he got there, he thought he had a decent chance of making it.
Two hours later, hungry, thirsty, shivering and at the last ounce of his energy, he reached the mooring and clambered on board. Before long, he had cleaned himself up and dried off again. The little stove soon raised the temperature of the cabin enough to stop him shaking, and then he ate. By early evening, the boat rolled slowly and gracefully on its way. Later on, he sat out on deck. A couple of passersby waved, and he waved right back.
Sometime about ten, he tied the boat up again and slept longer than he meant to. By the middle of the next morning, he arrived at the foot of the hill and started walking. It took most of the day, but he had no other choice.
Home was as good as in sight when it happened. Over the brow of the hill and going down again, he slipped on a patch of mud and went over. He might have screamed, now he couldn’t remember. Grabbing his ankle, he realised it would take him a lot longer to cover the remaining distance than expected.
For what seemed an age, he couldn’t move at all.
Eventually, he summoned the strength to shuffle himself over to a scrappy excuse of a tree, which had no business growing at this altitude, and wrenched it out of the ground. Using it for a crutch, he dragged his leg behind him the rest of the way and let himself inside. He grabbed a handful of painkillers and swallowed them without water. Then he passed out on the bed and slept until daylight rolled around again.
Three weeks on, it didn’t hurt as much as before. That was good, since the painkillers ran out nine days ago. The food lasted a little longer, but now he was down to just a bag of dried beans. And that was dwindling more quickly than he wanted to admit. It was a good job that he liked beans.
During the summer, he had dropped off enough food and general supplies to keep him going for a fortnight. Back then, it looked like a lot.
The plans he made for hiding out involved a lot of walking and exercise to pass the time. For obvious reasons, they didn’t work out that way. Boredom was the killer during the first fortnight, along with the pain. Now, he expected starvation would quickly overtake both.
The snow arrived early this year. Anyone who ever tried to live up here soon found out that, once weather happens, it hangs around for weeks. Especially the bad stuff.
Much better to fetch a good load of firewood now than dig a path to it in the morning. How long does it take to die of hunger? Moving enough fuel inside to stay warm until he found out would be a good start.
He wondered if anyone would ever find him, or if the wildlife might reach him first.
In that single respect, his plans worked out perfectly. This far from civilisation, he was about as safe from anyone rescuing him as a body could hope for.
One of the first things he did when he arrived was to rework the sapling into something that worked better as a crutch. He slung it under his arm and struggled around to the back of the building again. Until now, he focused on moving smaller branches and logs to keep the fire going. Those which remained not only needed chopping up, they were too big for him to carry in his weakened state.
With a couple of inches of snow on the ground already, he wondered if he could throw something together on which to drag the logs instead. He saw the snow piling up quickly against the door of the outhouse. Before it went any higher, he thought he’d better fetch the axe and the saw from inside. He might as well take everything into the house and chop the wood indoors where it was warm and dry. They weren’t his threadbare carpets to worry about, and, before long, even worrying was something that would concern him no longer.
Perhaps he’d take up whittling. It would be good to have something useful to show for his life before it reached its end.
Going to need that shovel as well. It wouldn’t hurt to move a load of other tools in if he could manage. He threw an old tarpaulin on the ground and laid everything down on it. He wrapped everything all around, picked up one end and pulled all of it through the doorway. Once out, it slid easily back to the door, and it occurred to him he could move the wood using the same technique. A lot of those babies were a bit on the rough side. Probably best to find something sturdy to put them on. A pallet, perhaps? He remembered seeing one by the outhouse door just now. He hobbled back, laid the tarp on the ground and dropped the pallet on top. Then he wrapped it around and tied it across the top, using some rope from the ground nearby. The first three logs scooted around on the sled with no difficulty, so next time he moved five.
After another couple of trips, he had to stop. He hadn’t shifted as much wood as he hoped to, but knew the pain well enough to know when it had beaten him again.
In the meantime, he came up with an idea for some improvements.
Gas pipes. The copper gas pipes in the kitchen. There was no gas left in the tank around the side. He checked that in the summer. Completely empty, with the connectors corroded away who knows how long ago. He yanked at the fittings until they came away from the wall. That didn’t take long. He dragged the sled inside, put it on top of the pipes and bent the metalwork up around the front and back. Then he sawed the excess away. Grabbing the hand-drill, he made holes at each end and screwed each one to the corners of the pallet and in a couple of places towards their centres to stop them moving around underneath. He had enough pipe for two runners on each side. Once satisfied he’d fixed them firmly in place, he tied the rope back on and pulled the contraption back outside.
By next morning the snow had stopped falling, but what remained was a lot deeper than any he’d seen before. With all front-facing windows boarded up, he threw open the door and looked out. It was, he had to admit, beautiful, yet terrifying in equal measure. Better carry on shifting that wood before the white stuff started falling again.
The first load moved easily. The pallet compacted the first couple of inches of snow while dragging over it last night. So much that it almost escaped while Harry unloaded it.
Then he noticed water, dripping slowly but steadily from the tin roof.
This side of the hill caught the morning sun, and the edges of the snow were melting in the daylight. The hillside below shimmered and left him rubbing his eyes from the brightness. In a few hours, it would freeze again into a treacherous sheet of ice, all the way from here to civilisation below.
As soon as the temperature dropped below zero again, he wrapped himself up in all the warm clothes he had with him and stepped outside. The ground was now firm and slippery. This, he thought, was his last chance to choose life, and he considered the conditions hopeful.
He pulled the sled out again, sat down on it and pointed its front slightly to the east of town to avoid the line of trees. He seemed to remember that steering was what the ropes were there for.
There was still a long way between there and the hospital below. If he made it around the trees safely, he could worry about correcting his course later.
Without so much as a glance back at the old homestead, he pushed away, moving faster than he imagined possible, disappearing in a matter of moments.
Did he make it? Well, nobody ever reported finding a body, so it’s possible.
I doubt I will ever know.
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