Tom and Ellie, who ran the only store, bunkhouse, gas station and bar in the high valley, looked at each other, then back through the plate glass window to the parking apron outside. They watched as one of their regulars drove his truck in off the highway, swung it around and backed it up to their door.
“Didn't expect Cal down here this week” Ellie commented, and went to pour the coffee.
It was early January, and the latest snow fall had been threatening for days. Huge, heavily pregnant clouds boiled and billowed around the distant high peaks. The dark threat had discouraged even the hardiest of hikers and fishermen, and the bunkhouse was empty.
“Looks as if it's going to be bad” said Tom to his friend and only customer as they finished loading Cal's supplies. He heaved the final half hundredweight potato sack into the back of the big four by four. Cal gazed up and grunted at the slate grey threat, already dropping its white payload on the mountains.
“You can bunk down here if you like. Place to yourself. Nobody here or likely to be. Glad of your company.” the storekeeper went on. “If it starts now you'll never get back to your place tonight anyhow.”
Cal grunted again. Reluctant to be away from his home more than necessary he said “I'll be fine, Tom. Truck'll get me through. Anyway, it'll be worse tomorrow. If I don't go now I'll be stuck down here for days”
He kicked the truck wheel.
“Gimme a hand putting the chains on?” he asked.
Now it was time for the storekeeper to grunt. “Sure” He nodded.
Cal dragged a set of snow chains from behind the driver's seat and the two men set about fitting them. As they completed their task the first of the fat, lazy flakes began to drift down and settle on the Diner and its parking apron. A yellow school minibus out on the main road slowed a little, then decided not to stop. It sped up again and kept going.
Cal stayed for a while longer, chatting to Ellie and accepting more of her steak pie, then returned the storekeeper's wave as he guided the Dodge Ram out onto the highway. He accelerated gently towards the high valley pastures he loved to live in and hated to leave, even just for groceries and Ellie's pie.
“Come on, Come on! Stop chattering and get on the bus!”
Miss Sandra Ferguson, petite, fit, pretty and almost 30, was the music and gym teacher and all round helping hand at the small, local school. She chivvied her teenaged charges onto the school minibus, glancing anxiously every now and then up the mountains to the bulging, roiling clouds. The lodge wasn't far, she told herself. Just a couple of hours into the foot hills. They would easily make it. The forecast was only for flurries and a light scattering on the lower slopes. The heavy falls would be much higher. There were no road warnings on the radio. The clouds appeared to be telling a very different story from the forecast, but Sandra put her faith in the weather man, who seemed to know what he was talking about.
'Maybe he's right and it will skirt around the lower slopes, spend itself on the peaks. It often has before' she thought.
Miss Ferguson to her students, Sandy to her friends, she checked that the doors and luggage lockers were all shut properly, then proudly clutching the keys she climbed into the driving seat to a quiet cheer and a round of applause. The dozen or so members of her small chamber orchestra knew she had only passed her bus driving test a week before and took the opportunity to tease her.
Grinning, happy with the easy relationship she enjoyed with her students, Sandy laughingly told them to “Shut up”, then swung the bus out of the school grounds and onto the highway to begin the long, steady climb. An hour later, with the first fat, lazy flakes drifting down, she saw a Diner ahead, with a gas station and bunkhouse. There was a solitary four by four parked outside on the already whitening tarmac. She briefly thought about taking refuge there, but her gauge still showed plenty of gas. She hesitated to make a decision, then they were past it and the moment was gone. She reassured herself that they would be fine and the bus ground on, steadily climbing towards the storm.
Something was wrong. Something didn't add up. It worried at him like a terrier who could smell the rat, but not quite catch it. It nagged and gnawed at him.
Sergeant Major James Callum, of Her Majesty's Royal Marines, fought down the pain in his thigh, gritted his teeth and began yet another inch by inch eye scan of the ground in front of him.
What was it?
What was he seeing but not seeing?
What didn't make sense?
He could hear the excited chatter of the enemy fighters across the rough field, about two hundred yards away. He could smell their cooking fire. They were relaxed, unguarded, believing they had successfully killed the entire Allied patrol in a surprise ambush some hours ago. Not even time for the allies to get off a support request, or even pinpoint their position. It had been fast and bloody, overwhelming firepower from all around. The mixed patrol of British and American Marines had stood no chance. Except Cal. Miraculously still alive, his leg a febrile mass of agony, he had regained consciousness to find himself hidden behind a large rock at the extreme edge of the killing field with no memory of how he got there.
He had been taken down like all the others, and forgotten.
Hardly daring to breathe, he focussed hard and fought the pain. He had one pre-packed morphine jab left, and he was determined to keep that for the endless night ahead of him. They could kill him at any time, he knew he could not escape, but to die because he cried out in pain in his sleep seemed wrong. When they discovered him he wanted to see them coming, face them and maybe extract a final price for his life and the lives of the guys now motionless all around him.
His eyes flicked and flicked, left to right, inch by inch. The bodies of his comrades were unmoving, gone for ever, the vile birds closing in for the feast to come. Sickness and grief for his erstwhile comrades very nearly overcame him.
He fought his heart ache and nausea down, and suddenly he saw it.
The odd thing out. The anomaly. The sort of thing they had taught him. The tiny detail that could mean life or death.
One of the bodies had no birds hopping around it, horribly circling for the feast. Each of the other tragic heaps of rags had their own battalion of assorted carrion birds, hopping ever closer, squawking and screeching, but this one didn't.
That could mean it wasn't a body, at least, not yet.
He squeezed his eyes shut, not daring to move any other part of his body, despite the pain and the searing heat. All that moved were his eyes, still flicking across the scene from behind half closed lids.
It was a heap of black rags. A ragged black bundle baking in the middle of the killing zone. Cal had no idea who it was. He had counted the tragic bundles. He knew there was one more than there should have been. But who? Enemy maybe? He remembered there had been a few civilian women working in the field when the ambushers had struck. The rest had run, probably clutching their few pennies reward for creating the illusion of safety just for a few seconds. But maybe the one still lying there had not made it.
She lay there in full sun and in full view, maybe still clinging to life. Almost certainly a woman. The bundle looked like women's clothes. Too big to be a child, certainly not big enough to be a marine. Anyway, marines, British or American, did not hide in women's clothes as their enemy did. His mind temporarily satisfied, the anomaly resolved, he drifted off into semi consciousness again.
Sandy Ferguson drove steadily forward towards the mountains. Up there somewhere was a brand new and very exclusive ski lodge and hotel, where her orchestra had been engaged to play a couple of concerts for the well-heeled guests. After dinner entertainment to help them relax after a hard day's skiing. It would be a lucrative little event, bringing in much needed funds for her orchestra and the school. The school had been providing musical entertainment for this particular holiday company for several years. A friendly relationship had been steadily fostered which benefitted both school and lodge company, so when the offer came to play for the opening few days of the new lodge, the biggest, best and most expensive, the school had leapt at the chance. High quality music students, playing fine music to rich and influential people was a heady mix for any school. Excellent training and experience for the musicians, cash for the school and kudos for the hotel company.
The snow was certainly falling thicker and faster than she had expected, but the road was still good, and the bus drove well. She frowned slightly, the snow seemed to be boring its way to her windscreen from a central point. It drew her eyes hypnotically. She shook her head, then hunched her small shoulders and determinedly focussed on the road ahead. She blinked, and took a better grip on the wheel.
Afterwards she was never really clear how it happened. The kids were singing in the back, she was concentrating on the thickening snow that flew at her windscreen with a fury she had never anticipated. She remembered slowing down, looking for somewhere to pull in and wait the storm out, then suddenly she was fighting with the wheel and the bus was bucking and twisting like a bronco. Songs and laughter turned to screams and cries of warning, light flashed in her eyes and pain seared across her head, then all went black.
Ten miles behind her, crawling steadily on his snow chains, Cal was humming tunelessly and thinking of the old days, and all that had brought him here.
Thinking of Jodie, and that hellish journey across the dessert. Thinking of their love which never had the chance to bloom. Thinking of her father who had become his father too, in all but name. Thinking of the home in the hills he cherished so much for its silence. It had been, should have still been, her home. Now it was his, alone. Her broken-hearted father had nobody else to leave it to. Only the man who had loved his daughter and tried to save her, and who had become his best friend. The son he never had.
Pushing his thoughts back down into their hiding place, Cal watched as the snow storm increased, smothering the road and thickening the air into a dense fog of pure, whirling white. His brows furrowed in concentration, trying to stick to the crown of the road, well away from the edges and their steep ditches.
A wild flurry suddenly threw the snow off course and for a split-second Cal thought he saw something, a dark shadow in the middle of the road. Then the snow closed its curtain again and he could see nothing. He dabbed at the brakes, taking away the momentum and slowing the heavy Ram, then let the truck plough on for a few more seconds and, yes, there it was again. A dark shape, not far ahead. Again he lost it, and then suddenly it was right in front of him. The dark shadow was a girl. A teenager, maybe, staggering and flailing one arm, almost walked into the front of the Ram. Her other arm hung uselessly at her side.
Dabbing his brakes as rapidly as he could, Cal carefully brought the vehicle to a stop, inches in front of her. She fell forward against the hood, sobbing and gabbling gibberish.
Dusk was falling. Maybe he had lost consciousness again. He didn't remember the last couple of hours.
Nothing appeared to have changed, except that the enemy fighters seemed to have fallen asleep. There was little noise now, just a low murmuring as two or three talked quietly. He frowned. Noise would have been good, especially as darkness fell. He had no illusions about escape. He was done for, and he knew it. But maybe he wasn't quite finished. He knew he still had ammunition, and a couple of grenades, because like the rest of his patrol he had had little chance to use them against their attackers. If he could get close enough to lob a grenade over the low parapet of rocks that formed the terrorist's makeshift camp, maybe he could take out a few, and perhaps sound a warning to whoever might be searching for his patrol right now.
But in the silence, there was no chance. His damaged leg would drag and stir the stones. He would be dead in seconds.
He waited, and full darkness fell.
He gazed at the black bundle, and several times could have sworn it moved, but then told himself that the light, and his exhausted state, were playing tricks on him.
The moon rose, and the killing field became a silver ice rink dotted with pitch black rocks, and bodies.
This time there was no doubt.
The black bundle moved.
Cal held his breath, waiting for the burst of fire that would end it all.
It came, but not from where he expected it.
A sudden burst of fire from a heavy machine gun, and the deadly crackle of small arms. A firefight had broken out, somewhere to the east, maybe a mile away. Their rescue? An extraction team maybe? But they were in the wrong place, and it began to sound like they were pinned down.
Hearing the gunfire, his own sleeping enemies erupted into life, scrambling to gather their equipment. Orders were shouted and the fighters began to run towards the battle, leaving only a couple to look after the rest of their kit.
The firefight was intensifying, and seemed to be coming closer. Why?
And then he knew.
Shining in the moonlight Cal saw the heavy machine gun which had decimated his own patrol being swivelled to face the oncoming American or British team out there. An old, old trick. Engage, fall back, engage, fall back. Bring your enemy so close to the heavy gun that they cannot retreat, then mow them down.
He had to do something to warn them.
Just pull the pin on one of his grenades. He wouldn't feel anything, wouldn't even hear the bang, and he would die knowing he had saved others. He was reaching for his belt when the black bundle rose to her feet and began to stagger painfully forwards. Some of the rags fell away to reveal cropped blond hair. And blood. She was going alone to her death, and the realisation made him suddenly ashamed. He pushed himself to his feet and began to shamble after her, his wounded leg dragging behind him. She heard him approaching from her left and turned her head to see him. Cal was amazed to see this shattered beauty grimly fighting forward to her goal. She showed this big stranger her grenade and indicated the low wall of rocks. He nodded and held up his grenade. Stifling any noise, they both began to laugh and cry all at once.
“Not going to die alone, after all” she croaked, and beckoned him on towards her. She was almost out. Her face was white and screwed with pain, but she managed a wry grin of welcome, and even in her agony, Cal thought her the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. She stared back at him, then they gripped each other's hand and set off together on their last mission, a bond already forming between them. The battle was closing now, they could hear the different sounds made by the allied weapons. But it was fading, becoming sporadic. Once more the enemy were exacting a high price.
Miraculously the machine gunners had not noticed the approaching pair. If they had they might have run for their souls, seeing what might have been the dead risen and staggering towards them, seeking revenge. Cal and his new ally, almost side by side, paused, no more than twenty feet from their target. Still unseen, they nodded to each other.
“Thanks for your company. See you on the other side” she grinned, and together they tossed their grenades over the rocks and fell flat to the ground, still holding hands, resigned to their fate.