Saturday, January 8, 2011

"In Ravenscrag's Shadow" - Chapter 38

In Ravenscrag's Shadow
Davis L. Bigelow
Copyright 2011
Chapter 38

Darkness squeezed every spec of light from the tree-covered landscape. The stars came out to play, trying in vain to illuminate the lonely tent sitting beside the frothy mountain stream. In several more hours, the moon would arrive to assist the stars. For now, however, the world was murky and shadowless.

Glen McPherson and Stan Calderbank lay in silent slumber. Outside the thin, ripped walls of their meagre accommodation churned Skull Creek, its turbulent waters roaring in the night and blocking out any other sound.

“Look at all the amazing flowers” Lillie exclaimed, music in her lilting voice. She turned her dazzling smile on Glen. He met her piercing gaze. His heart fluttered. Lillie wore a lacy white blouse and a full skirt, bearing the pattern of the Royal Scottish House of Stewart. The blood reds, forest greens, royal blues, coal blacks, golden yellows and pure whites, delicately woven together in a pleasing plaid pattern, flowed around her hips as she danced through the field of knee-high flowers. She was breathtakingly beautiful! All around her, crimson and gold wild flowers flourished in the hot sun. Blue-green mountains back dropped the alpine floral display. A calm lake shimmered in the valley below them. This was nature at its finest and his Lillie was like a sparkling diamond that completed the jewellery! Glen ran to catch up to his exuberant wife.

Warm air was filled with the sweet scent of blossoms. The delightful sounds of her voice filled his ears. Lillie’s soft hand was in his. His sweetheart pressed against his side. Glen was in love.

Lillie leaned into him, her face close. “I love you.” She breathed. Then, her tender lips brushed his. Glen kissed her back, lost in her embrace, his very life entwined around hers. Life could not be better than this!

Suddenly, the scene began to peel away. As new images materialized, Glen found himself sitting across a food-laden table from Lillie. He looked around, trying to orient himself. “Where are we?” His searching eyes settled on a menu. It sat on the table next to him. Tornea’s Authentic Mexican Restaurant was emblazoned in rich gold lettering on the deep red leather of the menu cover. He smiled to himself. Glen McPherson was Scottish to the bone, but he dearly loved Mexican cuisine.

Glen stared down. In front of him sat a colourful plate of enchiladas topped with melted cheese, a proliferation of jalapeno slices, green onions, and red tomato chunks, all smothered in thick scarlet salsa with a side of guacamole. Spicy rice filled one edge of the sumptuous looking platter while a cluster of purple tortilla chips graced the opposite edge. The meal smelled incredible! Glen smiled at Lillie and picked up his fork.

In the darkness within the tent, Stan Calderbank’s eyes fluttered open. His broken leg throbbed and his good leg demanded to be wiggled. The big man shifted a little. Pain shot through him. He winced. The big man squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to cry out. When the lancing pain finally subsided, Stan opened his eyes once more. Above him, twinkling through a rip in the tent’s ceiling, were stars. The slash was only a few inches in length, but with the moon still hidden, a brilliant swath of the Milky Way galaxy was visible. The big man gazed longingly at the sky. “What a show Mother Nature can put on!”

All of a sudden, the stars winked out. It was strange. It was as if a cloud had leaped across the sky and eclipsed the small smattering of starlight. It was then that Stan smelled a foul stench.

Glen dug his fork into an enchilada. His mouth watered in anticipation. The food touched his lips. “Oh it was so spicy!” The Scotsman choked on the piquancy. Fire exploded in his mouth. The inferno tore into his unprepared nasal passages. He could feel the heat in his ear canals! How could food be so hot? Glen dropped his fork and looked around. Beside him, at the next table, the patrons were just getting their order delivered by a group of waiters. Without warning, the lead waiter tripped. The poor man was carrying a platter of flaming hot goose. “What?” The oven bronzed bird was actually on fire!

Big C sniffed at the putrid air, an unspoken question demanding a response. “What is that?” The hair on the back of Stan’s neck stood on end. “Something’s definitely not right!”

Pandemonium broke loose in the restaurant. A man, at the neighbouring table jumped to his feet. His cloths were burning. Glen McPherson’s eyes popped out of his head. A shriek erupted from the flaming man’s mouth! Glen sat paralysed in his chair. His hands flew to cover his ears. The frenzied, flaming man was at least ten feet away, yet the scream seemed to be just inches from Glen’s head.

Glen choked awake. Beside him, Stan was screaming. The stinging taste of pepper spray filled the night air. Glen rolled towards the big man. “Where’s the flashlight?” Its LED bulb glowed against Stan’s sleeping bag. Glen snatched it up. Above the roar of the nearby river, he could hear a deep rumble. It was like rolling thunder! Glen aimed the flashlight’s beam towards the sound. His stinging eyes bulged out! He drew a sharp breath of terror and choked on it! Even with his glasses off, the small man knew what was happening. Through a hole in the tent roof poked the enormous snout of a bear!

Glen’s flashlight beam glinted off massive moist nostrils. They were black and flaring violently. A multitude of fine blonde-coloured hairs rimmed the tip of the bruin’s snout. The low, thunderous sound of extreme displeasure emanated from closed jaws and seemed to refract and echo past massive ivory fangs that barely showed against creamy red gums. Stan had already discharged some of the pepper spray. The burning flavour of capsicum filled the air around the two men, choking them. In his panicked state, the pepper spray had missed the bear and hit the tent roof instead. When Stan had groped desperately for the bottle, he had inadvertently dropped the flashlight. The horror-struck hiker had fired blind.

“Shoot him!” yelled the frenzied Scotsman, now wide-awake. Glen had never had a near-death experience before, but he was having one now! The flashlight trembled in his hand, strobe lighting the snout of the carnivore and casting disturbing shadows on the tent’s fabric. Glen groped frantically for the hatchet, unable to take his eyes off the bear. Stan squeezed the trigger. In the feeble flashlight’s glow, the broken hiker’s aim was deadly. A wicked torrent of crimson pepper spray hit the bear. The fiery liquid splattered against the black, flaring nostrils. The powerful propellant forced some of the stream right up its quivering nose!

The grizzly bear’s silver-tipped head jerked and then pushed further into the tent, tearing the nylon fabric like a sledgehammer through rice paper. Finally! Glen’s fingers closed about the carbon fibre handle of the hatchet. The bruin’s formidable jaws opened wide. The wavering light revealed a double row of tarnished white teeth. Saliva ran down a gigantic red tongue. A pink lower lip stuck out in a pout and started to gyrate. The grizzly let out a mighty roar. It sounded like a locomotive speeding down a gravel road at a hundred miles an hour. The sound was deafening! Putrid breath, blended with the thick scent of pepper spray, filled the tent. Stan nearly wretched. The deadly, gaping jaws were less than two feet from his unprotected face.

The big man could feel the discharge of hot fetid air as it ripped from the depths of the beast. Bear spittle spewed out, landing unceremoniously on Stan’s exposed face. The big man started to heave, but by sheer will power, he held back the surge. His kind-featured face contorted. He was nauseated and he was terrified. Gone was the throbbing in his leg and ribs. Stan’s life was about to end and all he could do was lay there, helpless!

“Shoot him again!” Glen screamed, trying to mount a counter attack. The wiry Scotsman squirmed to his knees and brought up his weapon. Glen was nearly blind from the stinging cloud of pepper spray. His breathing was distressed. The leather sheath still protected the hatchet’s honed blade, but there was no time to remove it.

Stan yelled again. It was the cry of a man about to die. It was the cry of a fearless warrior not willing to give any quarter until his heart beat for the very last time. It was the cry of a hero of legend.

The big man squeezed the trigger, nearly denting the bottle with his vice-like grip. A torrent of pepper spray drenched the entire insides of the grizzly’s gaping maw. Stan held the trigger until the bottle ran dry, but his thumb refused to release. At that same instant, Glen dropped the flashlight and crushed the carbon fibre handle in both fists. A battle cry, worthy of his ancestry, ripped from his stinging throat.

The hatchet came down with bone breaking force. Glen’s hands vibrated violently as the inertia was absorbed by the bear’s skull. The giant grizzly roared again. Glen struck again. In an instant, the mild mannered Scotsman became a crazed captured creature. Adrenalin pumped wildly through his bloodstream. He would not cringe in a corner. He would fight for life or die trying. Like a mighty machine, Glen rained blows down on the bear’s head. Their pepper spray was gone. They had only one weapon left.

The bruised grizzly roared again. Stan detached his hand from the empty spray bottle, his brain reeling for more options. Suddenly he remembered Glen’s crutch. Above him Glen’s frantic face was a blur in the near blackness. Stan groped in the darkness. In a split second, his powerful fingers closed around the wooden shaft of the crutch and into the fray it flew. The big man blinked hard, trying to douse the fire from his eyes. The feeble light lay on the floor, but in the near blackness at the ceiling, Stan could still see a little. With all the strength he could muster, the big man swung the tip of the crutch. It struck the grizzly on the throat. Beside him, Stan heard Glen’s ragged breathing punctuated by coughing. He could hear the dull thuds of leather-protected steel on fur-covered bone. He swung the crutch again. If the grizzly wanted them, the ferocious beast was going to pay dearly first! Again Stan swung. The solid wooden crutch sunk one last time into the soft, unprotected target.

Then suddenly, it happened. White pinpoints of light appeared through the hole in the tent’s ceiling. Glen swung the hatchet, but missed. The inertia caused him to fall forward. His souped-up body landed on Stan’s stomach and the hatchet head tore wildly through the tent wall, harmlessly digging into the dirt outside. Just beyond him, branches and twigs snapped mercilessly. Then, the rushing waters of Skull Creek swallowed up the sounds of the bear’s rapid retreat.

The winded Scotsman pulled himself off of the big man. His mind reeled. “What a rude awakening!” he muttered, coughing some more. “I can’t believe we’re still alive?” Beside him, Stan panted and moaned. Glen gasped for air, reeling from his swim in swirling capsicum.

“Are you hurt?” Glen rasped, grabbing up the flashlight and setting the hatchet down on the tent floor.

“No!” Stan gasped. “But I… think I… wet myself!”

Glen laughed. It was more born of nervousness than humour, but the laugh just got out before the small man could stop it.

“Are you… ok?” Stan asked.

“Yeah.” Glen panted. “I can’t believe we’re still alive!” he said again. The massive hole Glen had torn in the tent was rapidly clearing the cloud of pepper spray. The Scotsman drew a deep breath of pure night air and held it for a second. His heart was pounding, threatening to jump right through his heaving ribcage. “I’ve wrecked the tent.” He said finally, pointing the flashlight towards the massive rip.

Stan turned to see. “Oh my!”

“So much for a good night’s sleep.” Glen remarked, finally regaining some of his humour. “And I was having such a nice dream too!”

Stan let out a breathy laugh, moaning and then nodding. The big man brought his arm up and consulted his watch. “Almost four.” He stated.

Glen thought a moment. “The sun will be up in three more hours.” He said. “And the moment we can see, I want to leave this awful place!” Glen sounded as determined as the big man had ever heard him sound.

“Sounds good… to me.” Stan agreed.

“I’m surprised that that bear left without a bigger fight! If it returns, I’d wager that it won’t back down again!”

Big C nodded, but said nothing. His ribs throbbed, aggravated from swinging the crutch, not to mention the tensing of more muscles than he knew he had. His increased heart rate caused his fractured femur to pulsate and burn. The wetness, now cooling at his crotch, was irritating, but all the big man could do was to lie still and hope for better events with the coming of the dawn.

“We’d better stay awake until we can get out of here in the light of day.” Glen said. “If that grizzly returns, an extra second or two of warning might save us again.”

“I doubt… I can sleep.”

“Me neither.”

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