Full curl, p.1
Full Curl, page 1
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The high beams of two vehicles pushed a lonely tunnel of light through the black night of Banff National Park. With snow blowing from the top of the propane tanker in front of him, obliterating his view of the nearly deserted Trans-Canada Highway, Bernie Eastman felt as if he were driving his battered pickup truck in the vapour trail of a comet.
Leaving Calgary earlier in the day, he’d already passed through an early storm, a black wall of cloud that had, after devouring the Rockies, boiled from the mountains onto the prairies. It filled the valleys ahead of his truck, rolling and rumbling, erasing forests, peaks, and sky. Facing the dark void ahead, he’ d imagined driving off the edge of the world.
Just as quickly, the violent storm had skidded eastward, leaving clear skies behind. That meant cold, and cold it was. Since noon, the temperature had tumbled from 4 degrees Celsius to -6 and was still dropping.
The two vehicles now continued west, ferocious winds threatening to toss them off the highway. Eastman felt their frightening power deep in his forearms as he wrestled with the steering wheel. He sympathized with the other driver when he saw the tanker shift left and then right. He could see his own headlights reflected in the tanker’s driver-side mirror.
In the dark of the cab, Eastman heard the voice of one of his two passengers. “Why are we following this guy?” the man asked. “Go around him and quit wasting time.”
“Hold yer fuckin’ horses,” said Eastman. “I don’t wanna miss our turnoff.”
As he spoke, the exit sign appeared out of the blowing snow. “Jesus Christ!” he yelled, cranking the steering wheel to the right, hard, hoping for the best. His blue crew cab fishtailed down the exit ramp and finally came to a jolting halt against a concrete guardrail, facing up the ramp, headlights still on, engine still running. Eastman let out his breath in a rush. He could see the Bow River, a menacing black ribbon, flowing only metres below the truck.
Eastman, a bearded bear of a man, still gripped the wheel in both hands, his meaty knuckles white. His two passengers sat in stunned silence. He heard their breathing, hard and fast. The passenger who’d snarled at him to pass muttered something in Spanish. Eastman couldn’t tell if he was praying or cursing.
After a moment, Eastman pulled his hands from the wheel, flexed them once to get the blood moving again, then pushed his well-worn cowboy hat back on his head. “Whew,” he said, breaking the silence. “That was a hell of a ride, eh, boys?”
Hearing no answer, Eastman reversed the pickup, steering it clear of the concrete barrier, and then simultaneously punched the gas pedal and turned the steering wheel, spinning the truck around until it faced the right direction. “Enough of this screwin’ around,” he said decisively. “We got work to do.”
Eastman looked in the rear-view mirror to see Charlie Clark staring back, eyes wide in his thin, angular face. The lights of the truck’s dash were reflected from the strips of duct tape that held Clark’s old down jacket together. “Charlie, grab the goddamn light,” he said, “and let’s see what we got out here tonight.” As he turned to watch the road ahead, he heard Clark rummaging through the litter at his feet for the hand-held spotlight, a million candles of light powered by the truck’s cigarette lighter. He felt the blast of cold air on his neck when Clark wound down the back window. He saw the forest to their left dance in sudden illumination, so he dimmed the headlights and slowed the truck to a crawl. The search had begun.
Eastman watched the front passenger out of the corner of his eye. The black-haired Hispanic was still and silent. He saw his gaze following the spotlight that probed the darkness. The man had spoken little since they’d picked him up at the Calgary airport that afternoon.
In their first phone conversation a month earlier, the man’s answers to Eastman’s questions had been curt, almost rude. But Eastman didn’t give a shit about manners. From that one call, he’d understood that the passenger was impatient, a man who thought highly of himself and little of others. In fact, no client had, in all the time he’d worked in the business, ever boasted about his IQ. So this was a man with a big ego and big money. For Eastman, who ran a business guiding and outfitting hunters, it was the money that mattered. If that kept flowing, he’d ignore the rest.
The passenger turned to stare at Eastman as though reading his thoughts. “Are you certain they’re out here?” he said, obviously edgy. “I am not paying to be disappointed.”
“Yeah,” Eastman replied, perhaps too quickly. “They’re here. I know what you want and I’ll get it for you.”
The passenger still stared at him, unblinking. His thick, black moustache paralleled the thin line of his mouth. Eastman felt the urge to drive his fist into the man’s arrogant nose. He imagined the crunch of bone, the rush of blood, the warm satisfaction he’d feel when tears came to those dark eyes, if only for a moment. But he also sensed that crossing the man would be good for a bullet in the back of the head, sometime when he least expected it. Eastman fixed his gaze on the road.
They drove for an hour, crawling along the road, peering into blackness illuminated only by the spotlight. A light wind blew snow from the trees. Eastman saw the flakes flashing toward the windshield like tracers, streaks of brilliant white, hypnotizing. To the side, the spotlight reached far out into an open meadow. Then, abrupt and fragmented, it shone against the islands of pine and trembling aspen lining the road.
Eastman held the wheel with his right hand, the fingers of his left impatiently tapping the window as if he were transmitting Morse code into the forest around them. Behind him, he could hear Clark’s nervous fidgeting. The beam bounced up and down, left and right, as if the road were filled with potholes or lined with speed bumps.
An hour later, Eastman, exhausted, glanced at the clock on the dash — 12:20 a.m. His tired eyes played tricks on him — shapes appearing and disappearing at the edge of the darkness. Despite the increasingly strident voice in his head urging him to call it a night, to abandon the search, he willed himself to keep going. He knew that his passenger expected to fly home late the next day with his objective met. And Eastman knew that by accepting the man’s money, he’d committed himself to succeeding. He felt the keen edge of pressure. He desperately needed the money, though, and knew that if he succeeded on this trip, the man would be hooked. He would come back for more. In that first phone call, Eastman had offered a unique guarantee, and there was no question the man would hold him to it, one way or another. And so he must do everything he could to make this work. Giving up was not an option.
“Well, son of a bitch,”
No sooner had he spoken than the spotlight picked up the glow of a pair of eyes at the far edge of a meadow. Eastman heard his passenger speak in a voice that was surprisingly calm.
“There,” the man said. “Stop the truck … now!”
From the height of the eyes above the snow-covered ground, Eastman knew the creature in the meadow was large, very large. In the darkness, he had no idea what it was. At this point, it no longer mattered.
“Keep the light on it,” the passenger said softly and menacingly to Clark. “Do not let me down.”
Eastman twisted left to see Clark grip the light as tightly as his two scrawny hands could muster. By the look in Clark’s eyes, Eastman could tell that his assistant understood the consequences of failure. They’d be unpleasant, if not painful.
Eastman brought the truck to a slow stop on the shoulder of the road. The passenger beside him jumped out of the truck quickly and quietly, then slid a long, canvas-wrapped package from behind the seat and pushed the door shut with a soft click.
In the darkness, Eastman watched the passenger lean across the hood of the truck. His left arm supported a high-calibre rifle, elbow down. His right eye peered through the crosshairs of a 10X scope pointing into the meadow. Eastman focused on the man’s right finger. It moved against the trigger, slowly yet firmly. The windshield exploded with sound and light.
At the far side of the meadow from the idling truck, the bullet found its target. Eastman turned his head to see, in the circle of the spotlight, a massive bull elk first drop to its knees and then topple onto its side, a dark hole in its right shoulder. A cloud of white flew up from the snow-covered grass when the antlers — seven thick points on each side — hit the ground. The fleeting shadows of a quartet of startled cow elk galloped into the darkness, eyes wide and glinting, heads held high. They did not look back. Eastman saw the bull’s final exhalation drift upward in gauze-like steam that, for a moment, obscured his view of the thick band of the Milky Way. He smiled a tired smile. Mission accomplished.
Early the next morning, the rising sun kissed the summit of Mount Bourgeau in a band of brilliant orange. Directly below, National Park Warden Jenny Willson turned off the Trans-Canada Highway west of Banff on an early patrol of the 1A Highway. Tucked tight against the Sawback Range of the Rockies, the 1A was a winding route that paralleled the Trans-Canada to the east of the Bow River and the Canadian Pacific Railway. During the summer, cars, RVs, and tour buses poked along the road, eager faces within scanning for elk and moose, bear and bighorn sheep. But now, Willson knew, she could drive from Banff to Lake Louise without passing another vehicle.
As a law-enforcement specialist and the first out of the parks compound that morning, Willson drove the newest truck in the fleet: a green-and-white, three-quarter-ton Chevrolet pickup topped with light bar and whip antennas, the doors bearing Parks Canada’s crest — a crest that Willson had decided was either a beaver or a geriatric beagle. It was hunting season outside the park, so she’d bolted a shotgun beside the radio that kept her in contact with the park dispatcher, her warden colleagues, and the RCMP. She’d filled the locked metal box behind her with rescue and first-aid gear, fire extinguishers, and an investigation kit.
As she made her way north, she didn’t concern herself with the campgrounds scattered along the 1A; they were gated for the winter. Passing stands of aspen now leafless and bare, she hummed the melody of the Tragically Hip’s “At the Hundredth Meridian.” Like a slide show on a clunky old projector or a black-and-white music video, flashbacks popped into her head as she drove. Summer nights wrestling and evicting drunken young campers. Finding lost children. Dealing with grizzlies and black bears that had destroyed coolers and barbecues foolishly left on picnic tables. In anticipation of those bruin encounters, she’d always carried a tranquilizer rifle rather than the 12-gauge beside her now. Because she’d seen so many park visitors do so many crazy things around bears, it had become an unspoken fantasy of hers to dart a camper and not a bear, who didn’t know any better. Many times during the summer she’d found herself wondering — probably more than she should — what it would be like to sight in on a big human butt cheek and pull the trigger. She recognized that her own ass would be toast if she ever pulled a stunt like that, so she’d have to wait until her last day as a warden to fulfill the fantasy. Because it would be her last day. Still, the image of a clueless tourist waking up in a foul-smelling bear trap, kilometres from nowhere with a sore buttock and a drug-induced hangover, brought the first smile of the morning to her face.
Sipping the last of her coffee, Willson listened to chatter on the park radio, a sure sign that the park and its workers were coming alive for the day. She passed the Johnston Canyon Cabins, also closed for the winter. She saw no sign of recent activity in the new snow in the driveway, so she continued northward, taking the long right-hand curve leading to Moose Meadow. Despite the name, Willson hadn’t seen a moose there in all her years in the park. She always reminded the sign-crew boss that he could call it Moose Meadow all he wanted, but it wasn’t worth shit if he didn’t tell the moose. The meadow was open, bordered on all sides by a thick forest of spruce, fir, and pine, likely a remnant of a forest fire many years ago. Now, it was a tangle of knee-high shrub willow and birch interspersed with patches of grass and islands of regenerating coniferous trees.
Through the forest, Willson saw the red blur of a CP Rail engine dragging freight cars eastward to Calgary. Her eyes were drawn to a congress of ravens busying themselves with something at the north edge of the meadow. Normally, avian activity like this was her clue that a wild animal had been on the short end of a collision with either a vehicle or a train. But here, eighty metres away from the quiet 1A Highway and at least twice as far from the railway tracks, she realized that it was something out of the ordinary, something worth checking out.
Willson radioed her office. “Banff Warden Office, three-five-eight.”
In response, Willson heard the gravelly voice of Marilyn Bateman. “Warden Office, go, five-eight.” Bateman had been the warden’s chief dispatcher and paperwork queen for many years and had taken a shine to Willson when she’d arrived. On her first day on the job, Willson learned that if she wanted to know what was happening in the park, she should ask Bateman. With experience, Willson also knew not to piss the woman off — ever — or her life would be hell. Like a magician, Bateman could make holiday requests, uniform requisitions, and expense reports move faster … or disappear into thin air.
“Morning, Marilyn,” said Willson, “I’ll be ten-seven at the Moose Meadow pullout on the 1A. I want to check what might be a dead animal. I’ll have my portable radio with me.”
“Ten-four, five-eight,” replied Bateman briskly. “I’ll check in with you in fifteen.” Like all Banff wardens, Willson appreciated that Bateman would mobilize help if the need arose.
She steered her truck to the shoulder, hearing the tires crunch on a thin layer of frozen snow. She grabbed her Stetson from the seat beside her, pushing her curly, shoulder-length, dark-brown hair behind her ears before pulling the felt hat smartly onto her head. She stepped outside and shrugged on her orange Gore-Tex jacket, then clipped a portable radio to her belt. At thirty-two years old, five foot seven, and 120 pounds, Willson liked that she was one of the few women on whom the warden uniform looked good. Before shutting and locking her door, she remembered the shotgun. She unlocked it from its bracket, racked a shell into the breech, and pushed the safety to the “on” position.
Even in winter, Willson always carried a shotgun along with her 9-mm side arm whenever she responded to reports of dead animals. Most other wardens did the same. It had become common practice only after a now legendary incident involving two Yoho Park wardens a year earlier. Both
Before leaving her pickup, Willson studied the ravens flitting back and forth from the ground to a nearby snag. They were scolding each other, laying blame for inviting too many to the party, this human most of all. Willson saw their attention focused on something on the ground, unmoving against a copse of spruce. At the sound of the closing truck door, a coyote loped into the trees. Willson could swear it gave her a resentful look over its shoulder.
As she was trained to do, Willson let her eyes and mind wander over the scene. She had no way of knowing what had happened and there was no hurry. Instead of tearing in like an excited rookie, it was easier and more productive to first observe from a distance. She took her time, looking, smelling, listening. After satisfying herself that she wasn’t going to destroy evidence, she crossed the field of crunchy, snow-covered grasses, weaving her way through tangles of low birches. With each slow step, she shifted her eyes from the motionless object on the ground to the edge of the meadow and back again, anxious that a pissed-off grizzly might be lying in wait, ready to protect its meal. Willson searched for bear tracks, but saw none. Regardless, she kept her shotgun at port arms, ready, her arms tense and shaking. She pushed the safety to the “off” position.
When she reached the meadow’s edge, Willson forgot — at least for the moment — her fear of a bear. What she saw shocked her. Coyotes and ravens had trampled the snow in a circle around the carcass of a massive elk. Splashes of red stained the snow, while pieces of hide were scattered in a wider circle. She assumed it was the coyote that had opened the body cavity — the contents now spilled on the ground in a messy pile. Her eyes filled with tears of rage and sadness when she saw that the top of the elk’s head was a bloodied mess of splintered bone.
by Dave Butler have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes