Copyright© 2012 by Longhorn__07
"In regional news tonight, Colorado State Highway Patrol authorities in Pueblo are scaling back an intensive manhunt that has been underway in South Central Colorado for the past two weeks. A spokesperson for the State Police say Miles Underwood, the Texas native wanted on a number of Federal and state warrants, has apparently eluded a search party of over a hundred law enforcement officers who participated in the weeklong hunt.
"Reliable sources tell us the fugitive was sighted on the first day of the manhunt, but Underwood was able to kill a dog being used to track him and then slip away under the cover of darkness. He hasn't been seen since.
"State troopers, reinforced by local law enforcement and Forestry Service rangers, have reportedly followed up on every reported sighting, but none of the leads has resulted in an arrest. Colorado Attorney General Robert Mendoza promised in an interview with KTPB producer Raphael Amherst that his office would continue to search aggressively for the suspected rapist and kidnapper."
"In Fort Collins this afternoon, students at..."
KTPB Channel Five
"Early Mountain News"
He woke, but at first, reality was so much an extension of the dream there was no distinction between them for a time. Then he knew he was warm; he remembered bitter cold. He was lying comfortably but recalled running desperately. There was calm where there had been panic and fear.
Spurred by the disagreeable memories, he opened his eyes to a vague semi-darkness filled with the gagging odor of rotting vegetation. The air was stale and it was hard to breathe. He coughed.
The sudden paroxysm brought him fully awake. Another cough made sore muscles in his chest and back complain stridently. In spite of an aching stiffness throughout his body, he wrestled himself up on one elbow to look around. Bright rays of sunshine were reflected through the water to where he lay, but it was still dim in the hiding place. He could see fish in the water moving from light into the darkness below him and then swimming back out to the sunshine. He had to lie down again.
When he tried to move, he found his legs wrapped in a survival blanket and his upper body confined inside a parka. He was lying on his self-inflating sleeping pad that had been spread over a large boulder but he had no idea when he had even untied it from his backpack. His fingers trailed in the water and were stirred by a fast moving current. Groggy and disoriented, his mind fastened on the need to get away from wherever here was ... to fresh air and sunlight. He struggled to move.
His fingers unwound the survival blanket from around his legs. Two used chemical pocket hand warmers fell to the rock as he lifted the blanket clear and another appeared when he unzipped the uncomfortably warm parka. There wasn't a spark of heat left in them but he couldn't recall using them.
When he tried to sit up, his body rebelled. It took long minutes for him to stretch stiff muscles in his back and legs before he could try again.
When Miles slid off the flat boulder where he'd slept so soundly, the cold water created instant cramps in his calves and hamstrings. He had to crawl back up on the rock to massage them into submission. His lower back hurt so badly he couldn't sit erect.
A second attempt in the water produced more knotted muscles but he refused to climb out again. Moaning in spite of a resolve not to, Miles clung to the side of the rock and worked his leg muscles until they loosened. Hunched over, unable to straighten his back, he was forced to turn his head sideways and strain upward to keep his mouth out of the water. Had the river been running as high as it had when he entered the ersatz cave, his fatigue would have drowned him.
It took several attempts to find an underwater opening in the wall of roots and branches. In the end, he ducked under the water where the sunlight came through the strongest and crawled several paces into the middle of the river until Miles could see he was clear of the barrier above him.
Surfacing, blowing hard, he dragged himself downstream until he was clear of the logjam before he struggled to the riverbank. With his body lying just out of the stream, he rested and let the sun warm his chilled body. Water drained from the backpack for a long while. Sitting up, he filled his canteens from the stream without bothering to process it through the filtration system he had in the pack.
Without the buoyancy of the water supporting his body, it was almost impossible to stand--even in the hunched-over posture he'd managed under the mound of debris. He moved slowly uphill, away from the water and toward a thick grove of trees on a low bluff overlooking the stream.
He alternated between crawling on all fours and walking as nearly upright as he could get. Neither was particularly effective--both were excruciatingly painful.
After inching as deep as he could into the stand of trees, he eased himself down, rolled onto his back, and lay flat. His head was whirling. He panted, far more out of breath than warranted by the physical effort of climbing the gentle slope. He felt the hard earth pressing against knotted muscles and relaxing them slowly.
Once the pain in his back subsided to a bearable level, he discovered he was ravenously hungry. Moving carefully, he clawed open the top of his backpack and raked out the contents until he found one of the cans of preserved meat.
Pulling the tab on its top to open it, he wolfed it down, breaking pieces off the compressed loaf of meat "products" and stuffing them in his mouth with dirty fingers. Still famished, he opened a bag of jerky and chewed on the strips of dried meat until his jaws hurt. He topped off the meal with two aspirins from his small supply.
He rested until he had enough strength to sort through his belongings and spread everything out to dry. The cool breeze stirred clothing draped over branches he selected on saplings hidden from view from outside the stand of trees. Then he stretched his aching body under the broad limbs of the big spruce and slept.
A few hours later, he roused to eat another can of processed meat. More jerky and a freeze-dried package of chicken and rice mixed with approximately the right amount of water--he didn't bother boiling the water so that the sticky mess would be warm--completed the meal. He congratulated himself on finding great cover, accidental though it had been. Until his body recovered, he wasn't going anywhere. He dozed off again.
At sunset, he glanced at his watch for the first time and was astounded to see it was a full day later than he expected. He wondered what he had missed while he was dead to the world. Donning the parka again, he pulled the survival blanket around his chin and fell into a dreamless sleep. His breath steamed in the cold mountain night.
The late afternoon sun was still high enough to warm him as he lay on his belly on the grassy bank watching a bobber drift in the current past the big boulder a few yards across the stream. He suspected there were some good-sized trout hiding in the shadows there and he intended to have them for dinner. Fishing a smaller creek yesterday had yielded a number of small rainbows and smaller brook trout. They'd tasted great skewered on sticks and baked in the heat of the first fire Miles had made since evading the search parties.
Every so often, he carefully straightened a leg or twisted his back to stretch still tender muscles, waiting for the inevitable stab of pain that had been a constant companion for the past week and more. The toxins that had built up in his muscles during the desperate physical exertions escaping from the manhunt had taken a long time to filter out of his system.
It had been four days before he could hobble well enough to move his camp a few miles north from where he'd crawled from under the mound of debris in the river. As his muscles recovered from the damage he'd done to them that night, he hiked cross-country ... a few miles each day were all he could manage ... further north and away from the search.
Since the night he'd almost been captured, he'd made his camps in the best concealment he could find, searching for places where it would be impossible for anyone to find him. That resolve had been gradually extended to include the hikes themselves as he moved from one overnight hiding place to another. He played a game with himself, pretending to be one of the solitary mountain men who roamed these mountains generations ago.
Every herd of deer or elk was a rampaging Blackfoot war party he had to avoid without them even being aware he was there. Each deer or raccoon whose tracks he saw became a group of Hudson Bay Company trappers who would kill to protect their territory.
The eagles and hawks gliding in lazy circles high above were reconnaissance aircraft searching tirelessly for him. He knew the latter clashed jarringly with the initial precept, but that was okay. It contributed to the purpose behind the game.
Obeying the rules whenever he traveled, he slipped from one bit of cover to the next, pausing before passing through clearings to observe them carefully before proceeding. He didn't much care for open spaces these days so, more often than not, he retreated and found a way around.
He'd learned to freeze when his peripheral vision detected movement. He'd found by staying motionless and quiet most animals would not see him. Yesterday, a black bear had ambled slowly past Miles' hiding place less than twenty yards away behind the thick trunk of a spruce tree. The animal hadn't noticed Miles until it was downwind and picked up the man scent.
The bobber dipped and he jerked on the line he'd been holding loosely in his hands. The fish began to thrash violently, trying to shed the hook Miles had set securely in the fish's mouth. In minutes, the fish tired and Miles brought it to the shore and pulled it out of the water.
Hefting the rainbow, he decided it would tip the scales at two, maybe two and a half pounds. A very nice catch, he thought; it was plenty for a solitary diner this evening. This trout ... and the three smaller ones he had already ... would be enough for tonight's meal and tomorrow too ... perhaps the day after also.
For a moment, Miles watched the fish gasp for the oxygen that its gills could not process from open air. He caught the fish by the tail and slammed its head against the rock to kill it. It was necessary to kill the animal for food, but there was no need to prolong its agony. He dropped the fish alongside the other three and began to wind the hook and line about the short branch he used in lieu of rod and reel.
Cleaning the fish was quickly done. Stepping briefly from the shadows under the tree-lined bank into the shallows, Miles deposited the offal beneath a rock and carefully replaced it in the same depression it had gouged for itself over the years. After he splashed water over the flat rock he'd used as a worktable, there was no sign he'd been there except the wetness itself and that would dry quickly enough.
Taking a last look around to make sure he wasn't being observed, he ran a short line through the gills of the four fish and scrambled up the riverbank. He wanted to get the fish cooked and the fire extinguished before darkness made the fire a bright beacon that would attract unwanted attention. He was thirty miles or more from where he'd awakened among the roots of the fallen tree and it wasn't likely anyone was hunting for him this far north and west. He gained nothing by being conspicuous though.
In a thicket of young saplings a hundred yards downhill from where he intended to sleep, Miles dug a hole three feet in diameter and a foot deep and started a low fire. He added water to clay dug from the riverbank until the muddy mixture was about the consistency of putty. Patting it out to a one-inch thickness, he wrapped each fish separately in the pasty concoction. Dropping the shells into the fire pit, he covered them with coals. The fish would be done in forty-five minutes or so.
Cutting the young shoots from the roots of a cattail plant he'd pulled from a small pond back down the trail, Miles peeled the green covering off to expose the white interior. He munched on the tender, sweet core while he cut the larger roots from the plant into small chunks and put in the camp pot to boil. He walked back to the river. The level of the water in both canteens was getting low again. At high altitude, one used a lot more water than in the flatlands.
From the river he walked uphill to check the backpack he'd left in his small camp. Small animals liked to investigate it from time to time. It was a constant battle to keep them from getting into his precious store of salt.
He inspected the campsite as he walked closer but saw nothing that would betray its existence to an observer. He made a practice of never approaching the camp from the same direction twice to avoid creating a well-used trail a hunter might use to track him down.
The tent was set up in the middle of a thickly forested section, concealed from all directions by trees and brush. Just in case, he'd arranged a number of branches so they leaned against the tent and broke up its outline. It couldn't be seen from more than a few feet away in the twilight. A rock field behind it offered a quick escape should anyone approach. The pebbles and undergrowth up there made it impossible for anyone to sneak up on him from that direction.
The fish and cattail root should be about ready. He was so hungry he could taste them already. Delaying only to closely examine nearby terrain and scan the distant horizon one final time, he made his way back to the cook fire.
Special Agent John Randall--Jack to his friends--frowned at the documents he was reading and leafed through the file for a summary report he'd found earlier. Comparing the two, he shook his head in irritation and paper-clipped them together for a closer review later.
He looked through the entire folder, reading statements and examining raw data relating to the case the boss had handed him early this morning. He'd only returned yesterday from a nice three-week leave of absence for his marriage and honeymoon. Maybe the boss was punishing him for being away from the job so long.
Grumbling under his breath, he gathered the papers together and chivied them haphazardly into the manila folder. He left his desk and made his way to his boss's much bigger office. The dark-haired secretary waved him into FBI Assistant Director Pat "Paddy" Reilly's modestly furnished, but deliciously private, inner office.
"Hey boss, got a minute?" Without waiting for a reply one way or the other, and not even looking at the man he addressed, Jack opened the file to check the wording on one of the documents. "What did I ever do to you, sir? This thing with ... uh ... Miles Underwood is screwed up six ways from Sunday already and it's only going to get worse." He flicked one of the papers with a forefinger to emphasize the point.
"Well ... for one thing, you married my only daughter and took her away from her mother and me. Did you think I was going to forgive you for that anytime soon?"
Delivered in a quiet tone, it wasn't immediately obvious whether the Assistant Director was serious or not. Looking up quickly, Jack thought he saw a hint of a twinkle in his father-in-law's eyes. He decided it was a joke ... probably.
"Yeah ... well, I'll have to do my best to make it up to you ... Dad." He took a chance being so familiar with a man so senior and who supervised so many Bureau employees that he held the title of Assistant Director instead of the more common "Special Agent-in-Charge" held by other office chiefs. The Denver office had only recently been made the FBI's fourth regional office with an Assistant Director in charge.
"Anyway," he added quickly, "how did we get involved in this can of worms? Shouldn't the locals in San Antonio be handling this one? He's their boy."
"Well, he's wanted for three counts of kidnapping in two states plus interstate flight to avoid prosecution on several other felonies for starters. Those are just the Federal offenses ... and Washington sent this one to us for a couple of good reasons, actually. One is that he's apparently found a hole to disappear into out west of Pueblo. That's definitely our bailiwick.
"Another reason is some possibility of ... irregularities in the investigation conducted by the police and state's attorney in the original case against Underwood. The Director also thinks our local office in San Antonio might be a little too friendly with the state authorities there."
There was no possibility of kidding in the Assistant Director's voice now. He was totally serious.
"Yeah," agreed Jack. "What's with all these witnesses not appearing at this guy's trial, for Pete's sake? Most of them are military personnel or dependents of military personnel. It's not like they can just decide to disappear one day."
Jack had served a three-year hitch in the Army to earn money for college and regarded himself as the office expert in military affairs. His frustration was evident in his voice.
"And then, the way this guy Brady says Underwood shoot him ... did you read the ballistics report?" Jack shuffled the papers in the file, nearly dropping the package to the floor. He gestured at the chair in front of the desk and got a nod. He sat and spread the file across his lap.
"ATF doesn't have a thing on Underwood owning a .25 caliber weapon, but Brady sure does and it's his gun that was found on the floor of his office." He rifled through the file again to find the paper-clipped pages he'd set aside before.
"Apparently the lead splashes on Brady's safe are the same composition as the slugs taken out of his shoulder and the one cartridge left in the gun. You really have to wonder what really happened there." Jack peered inquisitively at his father-in-law across the wide desk, inviting his superior to make a comment. When the Assistant Director only nodded his head, Jack continued.
"And ... this guy Brady didn't say a word about Underwood fighting him for the gun ... not until he was asked, that is--and that didn't happen until his third or fourth interview with detectives.
"If I had to guess," Jack ventured, "this guy managed to shoot himself somehow and is blaming it on Underwood. I can't find anything that suggests Underwood was even there ... well, other than Brady's statements."
"Well ... a fire will hide lots of little details like that," Paddy observed dryly. "But I agree with you. There's no physical evidence at all."
"Yeah," sighed the young Agent. "If only this Underwood hadn't cut and run like he did. If he didn't have anything to do with it, why'd he take off?
"Also," he continued slowly, "Underwood's house was neat as a pin when the sheriff broke in ... well, except for a broken mirror and some sheetrock damage that hadn't been replaced in a bathroom. The front door was unlocked ... no indication why.
"You know ... I think Underwood had decided to get out of town and it was a decision he'd thought through and made meticulous plans for." He glanced at his boss. "But, if he really did have anything to do with the fire, I don't think it was part of those plans." His voice trailed off as he thought. He shook his head and sighed audibly when he couldn't connect the dots.
"None of this makes any sense," he complained.
"Look at the forensic report from the Fire Department," suggested Paddy when Jack didn't continue. "Arson investigators say the screen in front of the fireplace was partially open and they've identified the start of the fire as being about a yard away from the fireplace. They said something about that being consistent with ninety-five percent of all accidental fires associated with fireplaces."
"Yes sir," muttered the junior investigator as he shuffled papers in the file to find the report. "And this--'there is no evidence of any accelerant being used to induce combustion at the point of origin or any other point in the structure' ... that's real interesting." He caught the Assistant Director's eyes. "In the Academy they taught us firebugs invariably make sure a fire is burning nice and hot right from the beginning." He shook his head and looked down to find another of the documents.
"And this business down by La Junta? Colorado State Police HQ has positively identified Underwood as the guy who kidnapped these two officers, but there's nothing to corroborate that, even if they did identify Underwood from a fax photo.
"Heck, the description they gave would fit half the men in Colorado, let alone Texas. No fingerprints, and they couldn't identify him later on in a photo lineup. Well ... the first three times they were given a photo lineup, they couldn't." He paused.
"The only thing that puts Underwood anywhere near La Junta is his pickup they found a long, long ways off. That's confirmed, by the way. Forensics found his prints all over it--got the report just before I came in."
"You know, boss, a rookie public defender could get that lineup thrown out and if they don't have that ... hell, all they have is a half-assed description of a pickup that might be Underwood's.
"They'll have the devil of a time in court trying to connect the dots on that." If Jack Randall had a pet peeve, it was bad police work. This file showed a general picture of sloppiness that grated badly. "So ... what do you want me to do with this?" Jack was still hopeful he might escape assignment to the case he'd been reviewing.
"For starters, add this to your file," ordered the Assistant Director. There wasn't even the slightest emphasis on "your file," but Jack sighed to himself anyway. He was stuck with it.
"What's this?" He accepted the three stapled sheets even as he posed the question.
"The Agent-In-Charge at the Pueblo office sent everyone she could out to the State Police command post for the search in the Monarch Pass area. That's a rough draft of their report. I had it faxed here this morning. There's nothing new in it but it goes over everything we've heard about unofficially. It confirms they almost caught Underwood the day they found the truck, but he slipped away from them--killed a K-9 in the process--and he hasn't been seen since.
"Dan ... let's see ... Dan Rogers was the senior agent in the field and he wrote the report. I don't know him, but he's included a pretty fair summary of the state police's search over the last week or so. He says there haven't been any big foul-ups there, but Underwood--assuming it actually was him--apparently disappeared into thin air."
Assistant Director Reilly settled back in his chair and studied the young man his daughter had chosen to marry. The boy's forehead grew more creased as he read a passage in the draft report. Jack was one of the brightest and most dedicated agents he'd ever had work for him. He wasn't nearly as upset as he pretended to be at the loss of his only girl child. It wouldn't do to let Jack know that though. He smothered a grin.
"Great ... just great," continued the youthful special agent. "Chief, have you checked this guy Underwood's record?" Randall asked as he finished the draft. He pulled out another bundle of papers stapled together.
"St. Louis faxed a copy of his military personnel file to us and there's some other things that don't make sense. For instance," he shuffled the stack for a moment, "did you know this guy was awarded a bronze star, among other things, for bravery?
"Seems that he was a witness to a bad accident one afternoon driving home ... some drunk ran a red light and t-boned a van and the van caught on fire. He ran over to the burning wreck and pulled a mother and her three kids out right before the gas tank exploded ... got some second degree burns that took a long time to heal." The young agent thumbed through a few more pages.
"I found a phone number for his last supervisor in the Army. Turns out the Command Sergeant Major ... he's a very senior enlisted guy ... was still there. He told me Underwood was a quiet man and would give you the shirt off his back if you needed help.
"But he also said most people were always a little uneasy around Underwood; there always seemed to be something violent just under the surface." Jack sat quiet for a moment, chewing on his lip while he considered the two contrasting bits of information and how they fit into the puzzle.
"And ... there's a hint that he's attended at least one of the Army's survival schools--there's no certificate of completion, only a reference to it in a performance report. He's qualified "expert" with a number of weapons too ... and he declined a battlefield promotion in Afghanistan. Damn ... ya gotta wonder what that was all about." Jack closed the file and sat chewing his lower lip for moment.
"You know," he speculated, "the Sergeant Major said something when I was talking to him ... he asked if it was true Underwood had almost been captured and used a knife to kill a dog in the process of getting away ... asked if the man had any other weapons with him. I didn't know for sure at the time so I told him we hadn't confirmed it yet but the dog part might be true and he was supposed to have a shotgun and a pistol. He didn't say anything for a minute or two; then he said it was damn lucky only a dog got killed.
"He said it was only his opinion, but he thought the search party was damn lucky they hadn't gotten close enough to catch Underwood because he would have cut them to pieces if they had." Agent Randall sat quietly for a moment while he followed that line of thought. He didn't like where it led. His head jerked up when his supervisor broke the silence.
"I agree, Jack. There's a lot that doesn't add up and I want you to change the arithmetic. You make them add up." Pat Reilly's tone was a little sharper than he intended. Nice as the boy was, the Assistant Director had an appointment across town in thirty minutes.
"Get me some answers and find Underwood. Now that the state police search has been scaled back, he might get careless and surface somewhere. I want you there when he does. The Director has given me carte blanch to investigate this and it doesn't matter where it takes you. If you run into any problems let me know."
Jack stood quickly. He recognized a dismissal when he heard one. Waving at the Deputy Director's secretary on the way out, he plodded back to his drab little cubical. Time for more phone calls.
Drifting north, Miles searched for an opportunity to change his direction of travel east or west. The direction he went wasn't nearly as important as the change itself. That it would be random contributed to his intention of losing himself in the mountains. Once he'd managed a certain distance in some direction, he was going to turn back south to further confuse the scant trail he was leaving for the authorities.
Less than an hour into the morning's hike, he found what he needed. Moving to the shade beneath a pine tree, he pulled his large canteen out to gulp a few mouthfuls of water while he studied the ground and made his plans.
He thought he saw a path that meandered down and across the rocky slope in front of him that he could follow down to a slender ribbon of a creek that ran the length of the steep-sided ravine. Stepping from one rock to another wearing only his padded hiking socks would keep him off the ground and leave almost no trace of his passage down to the creek. They wouldn't make clear impressions on the ground or scuff a rock in passing and that would make it just that much harder for anyone to track him.
It wouldn't fool any dogs being used to track him but dogs would lose the trail too when he went in the stream. Once in the creek, he would wade up or downstream for a considerable distance.
At some point, he would abandon it and travel west after changing into the combat boots he carried as spare footwear. Then he'd find an opportunity to head back south.
When he got back to U.S. Highway 50, he would march east or west along it for several miles. It would have to be done late at night but cars and trucks traveling the route would pick up his scent on their tires and deposit it elsewhere. That would ruin any trace the hounds might otherwise use to track him down.
As the final touch, he would abandon the highway where a creek passed under it and walk along the riverbed south for as far as he could. He expected neither man nor beast would be able to follow his trail through all the convolutions he had in mind. He settled back for a rest before pressing on.
The big bird plummeted from the clouds with cruel talons extended to capture and kill a small rabbit no more than ten yards from where Miles sat. The rodent might have been surprised by Miles' presence under the tree and maybe it froze with indecision on its best move to avoid the human. Whatever the reason for its immobility, the rodent had surely forgotten the ever-present danger and it paid the price for the error. Miles nodded shortly as he absorbed the unintended lesson.
A monster for its breed, the red-tailed hawk was an albino, almost totally devoid of the characteristic black and copper-colored feathers. The cruel eyes of a hunter confronted the man, expecting Miles to challenge for the kill the raptor had just made.
When Miles only hoisted his canteen in tribute, the bird responded by spreading his wings to their full four-foot extension and screaming his triumph. The bird took to the air with the dead rabbit clutched securely against his body. Another hoarse shriek drifted down from the heights as the hawk disappeared into the branches high on a far-off treetop to enjoy his meal in private.
Miles gathered himself and took another swallow from the canteen while tightening all the straps on his pack. He patted the holstered pistol to make sure it was securely tucked inside the hip belt. Taking a deep breath, he swung out into the trail and followed it another few yards into the rock field.
On a boulder that would have been the size of an apartment building had its buried portion had been excavated, he broke off the path and turned west. Walking carefully, he zigzagged down the mountainside, taking care not to kick or dislodge any pebbles from their resting places. Their disturbance would reveal his passage to a skilled tracker and, in his stocking-clad feet, it would have hurt too.
Miles squatted in the shadow of the overhanging rocks and watched the valley spread out in front of him, looking for signs of human beings. He was hungry. Actually, it wasn't so much hunger as it was a craving for something different. He was getting tired of the fish he could drag from almost any creek or pond. He'd dreamed last night he could hear the sizzle of a big steak dropped on a hot grill.
He was a good ninety miles, as best he could determine, south and west of where he'd reversed course. As the crow flew, that is. Miles figured he'd probably hiked another seventy or eighty miles on top of that ... going up, down, and around any number of mountains.
It had been eighteen days since he'd turned back south and a solid week since he had found a footprint made by someone other than himself. He hadn't seen any signs of pursuit. In fact, the only suggestions of civilization he'd noticed for a long while were the contrails of high-flying airliners sliding swiftly across the sky.
He'd known from the start he would have to officially join the food chain in the wilderness at some point, but he'd put it off as long as he could. Hunting had a tendency to attract attention from other predators and made it easier for searchers to find him. He couldn't wait any longer though. He needed meat. Not only that, he'd been looking for somewhere to hold up for a while and get some rest. This place looked as good as any he'd seen.
In the grassy meadows below, he could see several small groups of deer and elk, plenty of hardwood to smoke the meat, and a number of small, shallow creeks that wound through and around the little alpine valley. In short, it had everything he needed.
Rising, he worked his way down slope and into a mixed forest of evergreen and broad-leafed trees to find a good campsite before the sun started its descent. He needed to pull out the crossbow he'd brought instead of a heavy rifle for hunting and check it. He should have done that long since. He'd sadly neglected the bow these past few weeks ... but then, there had been other things on his mind.
His first kill was more difficult than he had foreseen. The morning after arriving in the valley, Miles easily found a small herd grazing in one of the meadows and jogged in a wide circle through the forest to get downwind of them. Once there, he crept toward them, concealing himself in the brush as much as possible and moving only when his targets had their heads averted.
Eventually, he worked his way to within forty yards. He could see most of the herd through a screen of bushes and a small stand of trees. They were slightly down slope, alternately dropping their heads to find succulent young shoots and rising again to chew while they kept an eye on their surroundings.
He got his feet under him and stood, steadying himself against a sapling. The young male closest to him was his best shot. He aimed the bow at the feeding whitetail deer while he tried to remember what he'd heard about shooting uphill and downhill. Did you make allowances for it or not ... and did those rules apply to using a crossbow or just to firearms? He couldn't remember.
It stood to reason ... the lower speed of the bolt meant he needed to aim higher. But if he was higher than the target ... didn't that mean he should hold a little lower ... or did it mean... ?
He sighed, exasperated. Finally, he decided to trust his instincts and aimed a little higher than he thought he needed. Letting out a careful breath halfway, he pulled the trigger release.
The aluminum bolt flashed off the tracks at better than three hundred feet per second. That was only a bit more than ten percent of the muzzle velocity of a 30-06 round but arrows obeyed the same physical laws that all spinning ballistic objects ... such as bullets ... must. They all actually rise a few inches in the early portion of their flight and then settle. By aiming high at a comparatively close target, Miles exaggerated that characteristic and the bolt flew an inch over the buck's front shoulders.
The animal didn't react except to raise his head and peer placidly around. Deer aren't blessed with an exceptional quantity of brainpower. Their survival adaptations are quick reflexes and great fleetness of foot to run away from predators.
Neither of these was triggered by the sound of the bolt boring a hole through the air overhead. As the three-year old munched on the tender greens of spring, it may have had a moment of dull curiosity at the huge fly or bee that had flown over its back while it grazed--but probably not.
That did provoke an immediate response. The deer hadn't known what the bolt was and the flat twang of the bowstring hadn't been enough to spook him, but he did have an instinctive reaction to a loud noise coming from an unknown creature's throat. Unidentified animals were automatically classified as dangerous.
The buck began to trot off into the deeper brush, the white flag of his tail waving energetically to warn his fellows. There was no time for a second shot. Before the young male deer passed out of sight, he stopped and looked back--derisively, Miles thought--at the mighty hunter who had missed so badly.
Miles sighed and trudged down to the little hollow where the deer had been grazing. He would need the bolt for future hunts. Slipping in a patch of dew-dampened grass didn't improve his mood. In his mind, Miles could hear the buck laughing as Miles' posterior smacked onto the wet ground.
He used his knife to carve the arrow from the trunk of an aspen fifty yards beyond where he'd seen the deer. The sharp point of the bolt had penetrated more than three inches into the wood, making the extraction a laborious task. He had to work slowly and carefully in order not to damage the point. The bolts and precious steel points couldn't be replaced out here. With the breeze striking him full in the face, he set off to find another herd of big Rocky Mountain deer.
He dumped water on the last of the fires he'd used to smoke the deer meat. Hidden close against the dark rock of the cliff, the fires had smoldered for days under tall trees whose branches and leaves dispersed the rising smoke. It had taken a little more than two weeks to get everything done.
After getting the feel for the crossbow, he'd killed two deer, careful to not take both from the same herd. He did as much as possible to see the entire carcass got used in some way. Even the brains had been used, mixed with ashes as described in his survival handbook, to cure the hides--tanning them for future use. The unusable bones, hooves, and skull had been buried deep to avoid attracting the wolves and mountain lions he hadn't seen much of yet. There were tracks though. He assumed the predators were always around.
He figured he had fifty pounds or more of smoked venison and jerky in the pack waiting under the tall tree. The hides were lashed to the outside of the pack. He didn't know yet what he would use them for, but the skins were too good to throw away.
Miles hoisted the backpack to his right knee. Holding the pack steady with his left hand, he thrust his right arm through the shoulder strap. With the weight supported entirely on his right shoulder, he wrestled his left arm behind him and through the left strap and hoisted the pack into place. He spent the next few minutes adjusting straps and equipment for the most comfortable fit. It was good to be breaking camp; he'd been in one place for too long and he was getting restless.
New to his outfit since he'd begun his trek was the rawhide holster for his pistol. He'd fashioned the holster from the hide of his first kill, working the leather, soaking it, and forming it to the weapon until he was satisfied with the fit. The holster he'd brought with him hadn't been designed for wear with a backpack--in fact, it was damn near impossible to wear with the pack--but he'd long since decided carrying the gun was an absolute necessity.
The newly constructed one had an extra large belt loop that fit over the inside of the hip belt with two extra layers of buckskin on the inner surface for padding against Miles' belly. The hip belt hid most of the weapon, but it was still easily accessible with a cross-belly draw. He kept his old holster and belt to wear when he wasn't carrying the pack.