A COYOTE BARKED downhill. As I stopped to listen a bullet cracked past my ear and smacked into the maple tree beside me. I dove off the trail skidding down the icy slope toward the cliff. Whack another bullet smashed into a trunk as I tumbled past, couldn’t stop sliding, couldn’t pull off my snowshoes, the cliff edge coming up fast as a shot whistled past my eyes, another by my neck.
My head hit a boulder and I spun jamming a snowshoe in brush. Another bullet spat past my ear and splintered a root. I tore loose from both snowshoes and leaped off the cliff down into a cluster of young hemlocks and deep drifts and came up gasping for air, bleeding and alive.
The shooter was above the cliff I’d just fallen off and had no angle of fire till I moved away from the bottom of the cliff. Unless he descended to the clifftop. Then he could shoot straight down on me.
I was going to die. The cliff of snow-dusted raw ice and stone seemed weirdly primeval, as if I’d been here before. Below me descended the bouldery rubble of what had once been part of this cliff, with another cliff below that, and all down the slope tall frozen hardwoods where if you got pinned down you were safe till the shooter got your angle and then there were not enough trees to protect you.
I’d lost my right boot pulling out of its snowshoe. The sock, ragged and soaked, left a smear of blood on the snow.
Was that footsteps near the clifftop, crunching crust? I was breathing so hard I couldn’t tell. If I ran and he was already there he’d shoot me easily in the back.
There was a terrible pain in my left hand. I stared at it stupefied. The ring finger was splayed ninety degrees sideways, dislocated. Once I saw it, it began to really hurt.
Trying to catch my breath and listening for the shooter, I pulled the finger straight but it would not drop back into the joint.
A shadow fell high up across a birch trunk: my shooter was above the cliff.
Like a wounded deer I darted downhill, running and dodging between tree trunks, slipping, skidding and tumbling ahead of the shots. The rifle sound so terrifying, the loud crack that crushes your ears, the physical whack of it, and if that bullet didn’t get you the next one will.
He stopped firing, maybe couldn’t see me through the trees. I slid, stumbled and ran a half mile further down the slope then circled back uphill above my trail, found a blowdown oak and broke off a hard limb like a baseball bat. I climbed higher and hid above my trail in a hemlock clump where I could see uphill but not be seen. If he followed my trail down the steep slope I had a chance of getting him with my oak limb as he walked past and before he could raise his gun.
My foot was freezing and very painful as was the dislocated finger. The pain was making me lightheaded, likely to make mistakes. I couldn’t move till dark, when I’d be harder to see and harder to shoot. Though I didn’t think my foot could wait that long without turning to ice.
And I still didn’t know where the shooter was.
Then came the snarl of a snowmobile on the ridge. Maybe it was him, leaving.
Or someone else going while he waited in the gathering dusk for me to return for my snowshoes and boot.
I sat cross-legged in the powdery snow watching my upslope trail, clasping my cold sodden foot, trying to set my finger back in its joint, shuddering, teeth clattering. The sun had quit the ridge and a deeper cold was sifting downhill. It was maybe minus twenty-five but going to get much colder. If I stayed out all night the shooter wouldn’t need to come back.
When facing death you sometimes get flashes of awareness, tragic epiphanies of what led to this fatal moment. As you gasp for breath and duck side to side running and falling and dashing on, expecting a bullet to smash your chest, you know how easy it would have been to avoid this.
It didn’t matter that three days ago I’d been surfing in sunny Hawaii. And now to help a buddy I couldn’t stand but to whom I owed my life, I was freezing to death in somebody’s gunsights on a snow-deep mountain in the backwoods of Maine.