A young man is not who he seems to be.
|I rose into consciousness. Rain plinked sweet metallic harmonies on the tin roof of my cabin in northern Ontario. Or so I thought. As I surfaced, the sickening dissonance of pain slowly overwhelmed the gentle drumming and swelled into a distressing cacophony of agony. Its source was my left arm. A headache of mythical proportions conspired in my rude awakening. Leather creaked and someone moaned in the dark. I realized my eyes were still closed. They wouldn't open; my eyelids were stuck together. I swept my right hand across my face, prying them apart. I looked at my hand. Blood!
I felt lightheaded. My heart thundered erratically in my ears as I took in the scene around me. This did nothing to ease my panic. I was half-buried in a tumble of shredded seats, glass shards, insulation, and backpacks. Equipment spilled from broken wooden crates strewn amongst the debris. All was encased in a torn, collapsed metal tunnel. Wind whistled through where windows should have been, speckled with frigid droplets, stinging my face. Snow! I shivered; my teeth rattled like a sack of dice.
I suddenly remembered. The pilot swearing something about "FUBAR", pounding his fist on the navigation equipment. The single radial engine stuttering, cutting out. The appalling silence that followed, quickly broken by the banshee shriek of wind, which rose to a deafening pitch as we dropped toward the frosted firs that appeared so beautiful and distant through breaks in the thick clouds moments ago. The brown and green flash of branches and needles outside my window, close enough to touch. The horrendous impact.
I realized that the musical splash of rain was actually fuel leaking out of ruptured fuel lines on to the aluminum skin of what had until recently been a sleek, muscular new 1949 de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver. And probably on to exposed wiring and a hot engine. I had to get out! Now!
I shoved some of the debris aside and struggled to rise. But I was going nowhere. The jagged end of a wing strut jutted into the cabin, spiking my arm to the armrest. My sleeve was soaked in blood. I felt an irrational pang of guilt towards the unwilling participants of my boyhood butterfly collection. The thoughts that flash through your head when you really should be thinking about more important things.
I am embarrassed to admit that until then I had given no thought for my five travelling companions. Luckily for me, at least one of them was not of so selfish a mind. As I gathered my wits to make another escape attempt, a bloodstained hand reached across my torso and grasped the strut. I looked up into the scruffily-bearded face of the rangy young farm lad who had been snoozing across the aisle from me. He appeared ashen, but calm. He said nothing, didn't even look at my face. He braced his feet and pulled. The strut screeched and gave way. And so did I. I'm ashamed to say that I passed out again in the midst of a stream of inventive cursing.
I came to on a canvas tarpaulin spread on the snow, snugly wrapped in a wool blanket from our camp supplies. A doting mother couldn't have swaddled her infant son against the cold with any more care. I had stopped shivering.
Footsteps approached, crunching heavily and unevenly in the dry snow. I wriggled enough room into my cocoon to free my right arm and lever myself to sitting. I caught a silver glint from the twisted carapace of the Beaver through splintered trees about a hundred feet away from our small clearing. The source of the footsteps was the young lad. He had a body slung over his shoulder and was struggling toward the tarpaulin. My head spun and my ears rang, or I would have instantly sprung up to help. As my body puzzled out how to deliver some of my remaining blood to my stricken brain, I noticed similarly bundled pupae to either side of me. Their irregular breaths misted in the cold air.
I somehow regained my feet, in time to help the lad lay his charge gently on to the ground. We wrapped him in a blanket, trying to avoid jostling any parts bent at unnatural angles. The injured man groaned in pain, which was good. We knew he was alive.
Three wrapped in blankets, the youngster, and myself.
"There should be one more."
"The pilot. But I can't . . . I can't bear to . . . Those eyes . . ."
The lad's face was as pale as the new snow. He gagged. He was on the verge of tears, but wouldn't surrender to them. It was palpable, the price he'd paid. Now that one of his companions was conscious, he was done in.
I leaned on him as we slogged back to the wreck. He shook like a jittery fawn.
"I can't go back in there." His voice quavered.
"That's okay, lad. Stay here and yell if you see flames."
Expecting the whole thing to go up at any moment, I climbed into the cockpit.
If it wasn't obvious that a man couldn't possibly live on the amount of his blood that wasn't puddled on the cockpit floor, it was obvious that his sad, wide-open eyes regarded nothing in this world. Still, I saw more gruesome sights by far a few years back on the bloody, shell-churned fields of France. No one likes to come face to face with death, but you'd think a farm boy would have the stomach for it. Maybe it was just the crack on the head that led my wandering thoughts in this odd direction. I grew up on a farm, and death is on the daily menu. You live in its presence. It takes time, but you learn to accept it.
I clambered back out.
"Well, he'll keep in this cold. Let's do for the living."
He gulped and nodded. He stood stone-still, closed his eyes, and took a number of slow deep breaths. He exhaled sharply and shook his entire body, like a wolf shedding rain from its coat. The trembling stopped. Color poured into his face. His clenched fists relaxed. When he reopened his eyes, they were clear, and his voice was strong and deep. "Yes. I've rescued the first aid box and the axe. We'll need to splint any broken bones and stop the bleeding. Let's get to it." He strode off.
Amazed, I staggered after him. I felt weak as a kitten, so I traced his footprints in the deep snow as best I could. I was his equal in height, but I had difficulty matching the length of his determined stride.
Returned to the clearing, we cracked open the first aid crate and set to work. One of the fellows had roused and writhed in pain. His eyes were wide, frantic. Sweat beaded his forehead, despite the cold.
"Jack, where's the pain worst?"
"My hip! Jeezus, it's killin' me, Lennie! Must be broken. Can't feel anything below my knee."
"No use tellin' you to keep still, but try to anyway. I'm gonna have a look at it."
"The hell's a surveyor gonna do with a broken hip, Len? Just shoot me, fer chrissakes!"
"Hey, I was four years in the infantry in Europe. I'll have you know I could teach a medical class on setting bones in ditches with Lee Enfields and torn up long johns." It was a sham. But no point both of us being panicked.
"Deep breaths, Jack. Gotta get my own arm patched up here, and I'll be right back." I limped over to see how the youngster was doing with the supplies.
"Lad, I'll need your help. We're the crack medical team now, sad to say. I'm Dr Kildare, and you're Nurse . . . uhhh, Betty?" I was trying to keep his spirits up. Despite his rapid recovery from the specter of death, I thought I'd be mostly on my own from here on in.
"Edwa . . . er, call me Ned. Ned Winslow."
"Nurse Neddie it is." I forced what must have been a ghastly grin, because Ned grimaced. "Len Parnell."
I rummaged in the crate and extracted a bottle of alcohol and a small case. Inside were gauze, scissors, a small scrub brush, pliers, and sutures looped through some wicked-looking curved needles. "Ever see a human patch kit before, Neddie?"
Bright steel-grey eyes stared at me suspiciously. He knew what was coming.
"Don't look so alarmed, lad. It's no harder than sewing corn sacks together. Ah, maybe a little messier, and the sacks tend not to whine as you jab 'em. But you'll be ace."
Doubt wrote itself across his face. But he took the bottle I handed him. Despite the cold, I stripped off my jacket. My left shirt sleeve was stuck to the wound.
"Alright. Pour a little of that stuff over this mess, Ned." Grimacing, I worked the sleeve loose and rolled it up. The deep gash in my forearm made me feel queasy. Ropy things wriggled and writhed as I moved my hand. I didn't ask Ned how he felt about it.
"I may need this wing again, so we'll have to clean this up. I pour on the alcohol. You grab that brush and scrub the bejeezus out of it. Just give me a little love tap if I nod off on you again. I seem to have developed the habit lately."
I grunted, but managed to stay conscious as he cleaned the wound. "Now you earn your wages, Ned. Get sewing." I grinned. "No dropped stitches. Make a mistake and I'll have you rip it out and do it over."
Again he took a few deep breaths before settling to work. The first few stitches were no things of beauty, but by the fifth or sixth his strong dexterous fingers had the rhythm. You'd swear he did this for a living. He smiled shyly. "If you don't stop wriggling about you'll end up with your arm sewed to your chest."
I admired his meticulous work. "Impressive! I'm promoting you to Dr Neddie." He laughed, a welcome sound to both of us.
He carefully taped on the gauze and wrapped the forearm. We had critically injured men waiting, so we'd rushed through my repairs in only fifteen minutes. I doubt a surgeon with a full staff could have bested our little team. This quiet farm boy was earning my respect.
I pulled a case of small bottles and a syringe from the medical crate and we returned to Jack. He was beside himself with pain. We carefully unwrapped his cocoon and cut off the pant leg. I stifled a gasp. It wasn't his hip that pained him. The leg was bent unnaturally in mid-thigh. The skin was stretched drumhead-tight over what could only be a jagged bone end. The leg was swollen and purple, but the skin was intact. This was no simple problem. In France we would have strapped the leg, shot him full of morphine, doused any wounds in sulfa and sent him to the rear in an ambulance. I knew the break could cost Jack the leg or his life out here. I was at a loss, at the outer limits of my medical knowledge and bravado.
Ned nudged me and subtly nodded his head toward Jack, signalling "Mind if I have a look?" My first inclination was to shake my head, but I already realized there was more to this simple fellow than I had suspected. I nodded a "Be my guest".
Ned laid his fingers across Jack's exposed inner thigh. "Strong pulse here, Jack. Good man." He felt behind the knee. Looking at me, he shook his head. He poked the end of the scissors into Jack's calf. Jack didn't react. The entire lower leg was bluish. "Jolly good, Jack. Let me check for some bandages and I'll be back immediately." He motioned me to follow and whispered, "It's serious, Len. If the fractured bone has ruptured the artery in there, he'll bleed to death inside. Unless we put a tourniquet on the leg; then he'll merely lose the leg if he's lucky. He'll do so anyway if we do nothing, and in great agony. That, or we have to make an incision into the muscle to release the pressure from the bleeding. I can't see what else to do."
Not to draw too fine a point on it, but in no way did that speech quite jibe with what you'd expect of a run-of-the-mill Ontario farm boy. I skewered him with my best penetrating look.
"Now you're jockeying for the head surgeon position. Where'd you learn that stuff?"
He looked down his aristocratic nose at me. "I grew up on a farm, Len. Not on the moon. We had books, you know. I can read. You can't possibly know what kinds of things I've done."
"Touché. Most humble apologies."
I kept my thoughts to myself. We had a book on our farm too. The Bible. Not much about anatomy in there. In the 30's, books lived at the school, a building with which I had only a passing acquaintance. Being a sharp lad, I easily learned to read, but it was a skill that didn't get much exercise until I joined the infantry to escape the farm. If a farm boy isn't working or eating, he's asleep. I bit my tongue, to stop it from asking Ned if he'd grown up on a hobby farm.
Jack groaned, bringing me back to the moment. I was still nominally in charge, so I squatted down beside him and inexpertly repeated young Ned's expert diagnosis, adding a dose of sugar-coating. He had to believe he could live if he had any chance at all.
Ned squatted beside us. He set a bottle of alcohol, the small surgical case and a stack of bandages on the crate lid. He uncovered Jack's thigh. The leg was as taut as a balloon ready to burst. Ned doused a bandage with alcohol and scrubbed the thigh gently. Jack gasped, but kept still.
"What about the tourniquet, Ned?"
Ned pushed one end of a long bandage under Jack's leg, above the obvious break. He drew it through and twined the two ends into a loose knot. He pushed a rolled up bandage under the tourniquet, exactly over where he'd felt the pulse a moment ago. He laid the loosely-tied ends across the other leg. "Just in case," he whispered to me. He fished a knife from the surgical case and handed it to me.
I unsheathed it and lightly touched the edge to my fingertip. Beads of blood welled up. This was the tool for the job, no doubt. I understood what had to be done. "Ned, hold his leg steady, will you? Jack, this is going to sting a bit." An obvious understatement. I doused the blade with alcohol and held the razor edge poised over the most swollen area. Just like butchering a cow. Just meat. Carefully I lowered the blade toward the taut skin. The knife stopped as if it had met an invisible barrier. I couldn't do it. I brought it back up couple of inches to gather my courage. Still no good. My hand started shaking. This was a friend, not a beast. A bead of sweat dripped from my forehead and splashed on Jack's thigh. I looked up at Ned. His face was stony, unreadable.
Out of Jack's line of sight, Ned held out his hand for the knife. "Talk to him, Len."
I was intent on Ned. He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, twice, three times. I can't remember what I muttered to Jack. I might have recited The Walrus and the Carpenter; it didn't matter in the least. He went limp the moment the knife sliced into his thigh. Blood gushed up past the blade and soaked Ned's hand. He drew the edge steadily a few inches and removed it from the gash. The gusher eased off to a slow pooling. "Quick! Pack those soaked bandages into the wound and wrap it all up snug!"
By the time I tied the last knot, Ned was sitting back looking a bit green, but with a lopsided grin on his face. "He's got a pulse! Look at that!"
The lower leg was a healthy pink hue.
"You've done it, lad! I'm sure glad we had someone here who's seen this done before."
"Who would that be, Len?"
Ned abruptly turned and crawled to the edge of the tarpaulin. I followed and held his lanky brown hair out of his face as he vomited up his breakfast. He sat back, trembling. I sat back too, dumbfounded. Our eyes met. He broke out laughing. I just shook my head in wonder.
"The position is yours, Ned. I will now answer to Nurse Lennie."
The farm boy finally put in an appearance. He blushed a deep red and dropped his eyes shyly toward the ground.
"Well. No time for celebrations yet. We have two more customers, Doc."
Ned nodded and followed me back to our makeshift hospital area.
First I gave Jack a shot of morphine. I'd injected gallons of the stuff into shattered bodies in France. With the morphine on board, Jack muttered peaceful nonsense as Ned and I splinted up his leg with some stiff fir boughs and bandages. This was well within my area of expertise. The doing of it put a patch on my badly leaking bucket of confidence and pride.
One of the bundles was stirring and uttering what sounded like French gibberish. Unfortunately I didn't speak the language, even after four years of trudging over the ruins of France. I shook him gently.
"Réal! Réal, wake up!"
I'd explained to him earlier that his Montreal Canadiens weren't in the same league as my Maple Leafs. He was able to make several anatomically unlikely but accurate suggestions in English, so I knew he owned some grip of the language.
But his English deserted him under fire. His eyes darted about wildly as he struggled with me. He had no idea where he was. Ned stepped in. He produced some sounds that didn't sound very Quebecois to me, but they shortly kindled a conversation of sorts. Réal calmed down and his English resurfaced.
"Tabarnac! We are supposed to flying to Fort St James, not crashing and lying around in la maudit forêt! And who is dis guy who speak like some Froggy from France? I can 'ardly unnerstan' him."
"Easy, Réal. I'm guessing Ned told you what happened. We're in big trouble. We have to get moving, quick. Are you hurt bad?"
"My 'ead, it feel like it gonna blow up, but the res' I t'ink it's OK." He rolled himself out of his blanket and gingerly stood up. And as quickly fell down into the soft snow. "Ever't'ing spin. I try again in a few minute. Mais I'm OK, tabarnac!"
"Good. You rest. One more to take care of."
Ned said quietly, "Len. I don't believe there's any hurry."
There was no breath from the last bundle. I crouched beside Ned by the fellow's side. His eyes were glazed, staring fixedly into the beyond. I remembered his name. Rob. A good strong Scottish name to match his brogue. I offered a silent prayer; I assumed Ned did likewise. Then I reached across to close the man's eyes. Ned gently grasped my wrist.
"No. Len, please allow me to do this." He took a deep breath, reached over and gently closed the staring eyes. It was almost a caress. Sombrely he wished, "Better luck on your voyage home, Robert." A tear picked its way down Ned's cheek.
* * *"Okay, Ned. For better or worse we're all accounted for. Now to get out of here."
Ned succinctly added, "Wherever the deuce, er . . . hell, here is."
I gave him a puzzled dog look, cocking my head sideways and staring at him. "I've got some questions for you, lad. Later. First let's see if we can raise someone on the radio."
"On the former radio, you mean. Its mortal remains are in the cockpit with the pilot's. There'll be no radioing done unless it works with all its valves smashed to bits."
"Valves? Never mind. That goes on to my interrogation list too. Okay. Well, we'd better put together a better quality plan than waiting for a rescue party to find our bodies."
"Assuming such a party could find us. I gather we were rather off course. They still haven't found that Earhart woman after ten years!"
"Ah. The voice of optimism is always welcome. Alright. Let's see what we have to work with."
Ned pointedly looked to the west. "Be dark before we can start out, and we have no way to move Jack yet. I suggest we set up camp for the night."
"I was just about to suggest that, Ned." I eyeballed him. "You're the doctor, not the general." Not yet anyway. The kid was just too quick for my comfort. But I knew I could rely on him.
"Right. Of course you were." Was that a hint of a grin twitching the sides of his mouth?
Before the young whippersnapper could beat me to the punch, I quickly blurted, "And we have to deal with our two unfortunates whose journey ended here. The cold will delay the inevitable, but it won't do anything to hold back the wolves, bears, cougars and god-knows-what other hungry critters whose pantry this is."
"Righto. I hadn't thought of that. Good one!" I suspect he was just reinforcing the patch on my aforementioned bucket, and I took it in that spirit.
Jack was warm and resting peacefully. I instructed the still-woozy Réal to find a good place to deploy our tent. Assuming it wasn't in shreds.
Ned and I ransacked the plane's carcass and carried or skidded supplies to Réal's camping spot, under sheltering fir boughs at the edge of our little clearing. By the time we stopped for a breath we had rescued the tent, five pairs of good sturdy cross-country skis with poles, two pairs of new snowshoes, a couple of shovels, two beautiful Winchester Model 1894's, cases of 30-30 cartridges, a crude canvas stretcher, and other miscellany associated with an all-weather mobile surveying camp. We'd picked out most of our original payload to be suitable for backpacking. Most importantly, we secured enough survival rations for five men for a week. We wouldn't be dining at the Waldorf Astoria, but neither would we be reduced to bark soup if game was scarce. With my infantry rifleman background I imagined myself The Great White Hunter.
"Réal. You're our only Frenchman. That makes you chef. Ned and I are gonna see about stowing our deceased friends somewhere safe."
"I'm not French! J'suis Quebecois! An' if I cook, we will all need stowing." He laughed.
Ned and I followed the well-worn path to the Beaver.
"Ned, you as handy with a hammer as you are with a knife? We can jury-rig up some rough boxes from the broken crates in here."
"I don't know. Never used one."
He wasn't pulling my leg. The boy bent every nail he attacked. You'd think he was trying to pound copper wire into a sidewalk. He muttered to himself.
I wasn't about to let this opportunity pass. "Lad, we only have two thousand nails. Better lay off the hammer and gather up the best wooden bits. I'll take over the construction."
Sheepishly he put the tool down and went foraging. I felt sorry for him.
"Neddie, I don't know what we would have done without you today."
A smile split his drawn, grimy face. I felt a lot less mean.
I'd been building things since I was three years old. I quickly cobbed together two workable coffins.
We lugged in the bodies and laid them gently into the boxes. Luckily they were not yet stiffening. I was worried that Ned wouldn't be up to the task, but he performed like a trooper. I nailed the caskets shut and we closed the somehow-still-functioning door on our makeshift mausoleum.
Back at camp, Réal was adjusting the tent's guy lines. He had a fire going and a pot simmering on a tripod.
"Double, double, toil and trouble." I was showing off for the peasants.
"Fire burn, and cauldron bubble," returned Ned. "I hope Réal didn't find the crate of newts!"
"So! You can read after all." What kind of farm kid reads Macbeth?
Réal ladled some steaming stuff out into billy cans. "Oo is ma firs' victim?" he cackled. A joke, we hoped.
It turned out to be a very serviceable stew, with nary a newt!
Jack was stirring. I managed to instil some nourishment into him without him drowning. Ned and I carefully manoeuvred him on to the stretcher and into the tent. He groaned in pain. I cracked another vial and dispatched him back into the sweet arms of Morpheus.
The Frenchman was obviously hanging on by sheer will, so I tipped my wool hat, "Compliments, chef. Why don't you bunk out. We'll clean up."
"Bon idée! Jusqu'au matin, mes gars." His English was already fast asleep. He hoisted a sleeping bag and crawled into the tent. Shortly, snores blended with the crackle of the fire.
Ned and I washed up with snowmelt. We were fast becoming the perfect team.
Wolves howled close by. The night sky was moonless obsidian, studded with several million stars. We sat on crates by the fire, the flickering firelight playing across our faces. Ned's had shed several years in the washing. He had the clear skin of youth and a patchy growth of fuzz that could only be his first go at it.
"At first light we eyeball the maps and point ourselves at the nearest civilization. Somehow Jack comes with us. I'm too tuckered out to think further than that."
"It'll take some doing, Len. I'll not say I'm feeling all too grand about what's in front of us."
"Tomorrow, lad. Leave it now. We'll wake up to it."
"Not if the wolves have a say." His voice shook a little, and not with the cold.
"Wolves? They're too smart to bother us. Lots of dinner out there that won't put up a fight."
A farm kid afraid of wolves? I was used up, but my curiosity awoke, stretched and yawned, fangs sharp and glistening in the firelight.
"So how does a kid get from a farm in Ontario to a rock-hunting show in British Columbia?"
"Truth is I had to see what else the world contained besides cowshit. I've got three brothers. The farm'll get on without me. All they asked when I applied for this job was, 'Can you operate a shovel?' Can you believe that!"
"Where there's cows, there's shovelling alright," I laughed. "Me, I got a Geological Technology diploma courtesy of the Vets Charter when I got back from my vacation in France."
In my most inquisitional tone, "You know, kid, you don't sound a lot like the Ontario boys I promenaded around France with." I left it open.
"The way I talk, you mean? Hah! That's why you've been looking at me like I have antennae and horns?" He paused and scowled at me. "Mother and father are Brits. We'd a farm in Devon. They immigrated to Ontario in the thirties and bought a farm. Bad timing, eh what? I was four, so I guess I'm a Brit too. Bit of a mongrel. Don't sound English and don't sound Canadian. The girls seem to like it though." He blushed. And yawned cavernously. The speech used up his last ounce of stamina.
I was relentless. "What kinda farm?"
"Regular thing. Cows, horses, goats, dirt. You know."
I pushed on; a weary man is not a wary man. "Tough day all around, eh? Could have been you or I lying in those sad boxes in the plane. "
"I suppose we're the lucky ones," he commented doubtfully.
"Unlike your man Rob. I saw you two talking at the airstrip this morning. Friend of yours?"
He sighed and swallowed before replying, "Nah, not really. Just met him . . . uhh . . . on the bus up yesterday. Interesting fellow though . . ." His speech tailed off into incoherence. His eyes fluttered shut.
"You're on autopilot, lad. Better get on the ground before you crash."
"Rather tasteless, given the situation, Len." But he chuckled sleepily and wobbled off toward the tent. He paused a moment and turned. "And I'm not a kid, old man."
My body wanted to close the book on the day, but my curiosity had its claw on the mouse's tail. It wasn't about to dust off his hat, hand it back, and let him run.
Ned's story was plausible, but almost felt rehearsed. Too plausible, it poured out like syrup. Was I just a suspicious bastard? Already a cantankerous old bugger at twenty-nine? Well, yes I was, and not ashamed of it! Okay. He explained the accent, and it made sense. But the medical stuff, the Shakespeare, the uneasiness around death, the fear of wolves, that incredible self possession. An odd concoction was my new friend. Well, a friend he was, no questioning that. And a remarkable young man. Satisfied with that outcome, I scattered the coals into the snow, anointed the ashes, and slunk off to my sleeping bag.
Images of the day drifted across my fading consciousness. Five weather-beaten, varyingly scruffy young men draped over broken down chairs at the airstrip. The biting pungency of aviation fuel. The musty aroma of canvas. A cairn of bulging military-surplus khaki backpacks. Talk peppered with geological terms and wistful references to girlfriends back home. The almost-mythical Geological Survey of Canada. That was us! War stories, still fresh and raw.
Snippets of conversation drifted like smoke:
"Jayzus! Willya lookit the snow! Week ago ya could see dirt. Winter's comin' out fer another round."
"Bah! First rain'll take care o' that. We can fatten up in St James while we're waitin'. The jeezly horseflies'r bleedin' ya dry, y'll be beggin' fer snow."
Finally, some serious talk of the task ahead. Good-natured ribbing to defuse the anxiety as we boarded the plane. The rough and tumble logging town of Prince George fading away below feathery cloud as we banked on a heading toward the old fur-trading village of Fort St James.
* * *I awoke to the celestial aroma of coffee and griddlecakes. Réal took his new position seriously. Ned crouched beside Jack, chatting. The leg obviously pained him, but he was managing it. The canvas walls glowed with brilliant sunshine.
"Ah, the life of the rugged outdoorsman!" I sang brightly.
Variations on "Shut up, Len" came at me in three part harmony.
"Fair enough. We'll make plans over breakfast. I'll get the maps. Anyone gets syrup on them gets left behind."
Unintentionally, this provided an opening for Jack.
"Jeezus, Len. You know I'm not making it out of here. Not with this leg, a million miles from who knows where. Leave me a few bottles of that sleepy-juice and you three save yourselves."
"You're talkin' shit, Jack. We crawled on our bellies up Juno Beach and across France together, friend. I've saved your ass a dozen times. This is nothing, a Sunday stroll."
"I think you got the saver confused with the savee, Len."
Ned waded in, "Jack, we'll not leave you behind. If you're determined to stay here, then by God, we'll all stay and wait for rescue."
So it went. I told Jack he was coming if we had to chop him up and divide the load. He reluctantly relented, his voice choking up a little.
An Everest of pancakes was conquered in minutes. After all, we were condemned men.
After the type of discussion that can only be prosecuted by inordinately pigheaded men or Scots, we finally agreed to agree to a plan over which we disagreed. I would fashion what Réal termed a travois from Jack's stretcher and one pair of skis. Two men would strap on snowshoes and pull the contraption. The third would put on skis and haul a crude sled rigged up from another pair of skis. We'd rotate duties. The fourth man was Jack, and he had a free ride, lucky fellow!
Since I had been the orienteering officer for my platoon, I examined the maps.
"Prince George to Fort St James is about 75 miles by air. I estimate us at about halfway there. Except for bush, all there is between us and Fort St James is more bush. No roads, no people, nothing. Just before we went down I saw what I figured was the Stuart River to the west. I imagine it's still there. We'll head towards it, keep it in sight, and hike north to St James. That's our plan. Unless a bus comes along."
It took us less than an hour to rig up the travois and bang together a workable sled, using a piece of aluminum bulkhead torn from the Beaver. We quickly packed up what we could carry. Ned and I changed the dressing on Jack's leg. It looked nasty but clean and pink. So far, so good.
Ned strapped on the skis first. It was like watching a Buster Keaton movie. After struggling back to his feet a third time he swore, "These bloody things are satanic! That's it! I'm not going." He tangled his feet and collapsed in a heap again.
Despite our desperate situation, we could hardly breathe for hooting. Jack's laughter was punctuated by gasps of pain. Even Ned saw the humour.
"For Jack's sake I'm submitting an official request for a change of plan. Either I wear the skis and crawl to Fort St James on my belly, or I stick to permanent travois duty. Snowshoeing I can do."
And he did. The terrain rolled gently, the deep snow windblown and firm. We snaked and slid through glades of towering fir and spruce and made decent time. I ran the compass and by midday we flopped down and gnawed some rations on the brink of a steep hoodoo. Far below was the snarling torrent of the Stuart River, hustling hell-bent to join the Nechacko.
Ned goggled at the frothing river, mouth agape. He yelled over the deafening roar, "We have nothing like this back home. It's utterly majestic!"
Strange! Northern Ontario is savage country, webbed with raging rivers. A man could hardly walk twenty miles without falling into one.
I took a bearing and we headed upriver following the contours of the land. The men seemed energized by finding the river right where we expected it to be. If I were some kind of mystical shaman, I'd have said that our grounded spirits shook out their feathers and gingerly took to the air. What I really noticed is that we began to talk more and joke, to step outside our dark private worlds. Even Jack caught the lift.
I said to him, "Time to trade places, man of leisure. I feel a nap coming on." I was only just kidding.
"Sorry, old chap. This chariot is booked right through to Fort St James. You'll have to order your own."
On we trudged. We often lost sight of the river, but it was never out of earshot that day. Its soft susurrus in the distance was a comforting companion.
An exposed bluff loomed; we needed to traverse it. Its broad flat top sprouted several spidery clumps of bushes poking through the snow, most with wizened pods still on the branches. I gathered a palm-full and tasted one, expecting dry bitterness. Hiding my reaction, I offered the rest to Ned.
He cocked a distrustful eye at me. "You do realize that if you poison me, you'll be on your own with Jack's rickshaw?"
"What did I ever do to you to deserve such treatment?" I laid on a pout to rival Marilyn Monroe's.
He shook his head resignedly and bit down on one with his front teeth, like a dog testing an olive. His face lit up in surprise. "You monumental bahstard! What the devil is that? It's incredible!"
I cracked up. "Dried huckleberries, you rube! Not much finer a treat on this earth. The bears must've missed this bunch!"
"As soon as we get out of here I'm calling my barrister and leaving you my entire estate!"
"And what'll I do with a dozen goats and a shovel?" I shouldn't have scoffed.
Réal made the discovery on his own and was gorging like a grizzly stocking up for winter. We stripped all the bushes and filled whatever crevices we could find in our packs with huckleberry raisins.
"Ned! Réal! Easy! You eat every second one you'll be out in the woods with your drawers down all night. These things'll go through you like Ajax the Foaming Cleanser."
Soon we were squinting against the sun kissing the western horizon. The untracked snow became acres of pink mousse! A moisture-laden westerly was kicking up.
We found shelter and quickly made camp. Réal repeated his recipe of the previous night. We were too tired and hungry to protest. We'd have eaten the gut off the snowshoes with a little salt.
Not ten words were exchanged that evening; we were too spent to talk or think. I scattered the fire and looked to the heavens. Infiltrating clouds hid the stars.
I woke at the first glimmering inkling of sunrise. Jack moaned beside me. Ned and Réal were labouring around the fire and chatting in two wondrously distinct dialects of English.
As I crawled out and stretched my achy limbs, Ned was licking something from a spoon. "You made this with those dry old berries, Réal ? You've wasted your talents on a PhD in rocks. What a loss for the gourmets of the world!"
"Not rocks, maudit Anglais! Géologie!" A silver tooth flashed through his bushy black beard as he laughed and shook his curly head. "Watch dose pancake, tabarnac de tête carré! You gonna eat all de black one." It could have been the kitchen of any five-star restaurant, the sacred ritual of the chef berating his staff.
I strolled up. "I hope you're not thinking of bequeathing half my goats to Réal now."
"Not to worry, Len. The thing about goats, every time you turn around you've another new one. I fear you'll have to work out an arrangement for the shovel though."
The huckleberry syrup was a tonic. I reflected on the power of good simple food to ease misery. Despite the present idyllic scene, we were in a miserable, desperate bind. I reckoned we'd only made about fifteen miles yesterday, and not all of it in a northerly direction. A long way to go, with aching, blistered feet and a critically injured comrade.
Jack had worsened. The leg looked passable when we redressed it, but its owner was weak, could scarcely talk. He feebly waved away the plate of pancakes, but did manage to put away a mugful of diluted syrup. The stuff really was miraculous. Pure sugar. With the huckleberries onboard, he rallied.
We studied the map over breakfast. The Stuart traced a long, lazy curve from just south of the settlement to where we stood. I marked a course on the chart with my finger.
"Lads, it's risky with no landmarks, but how's about cutting across the bight here and picking up the river again here where it runs due south? We'll save some miles."
A glance at the chalky red sky to the west and no one offered any argument. A fresh breeze drove before it big flakes of snow. We hurriedly broke camp and got on the trail. A figure of speech; there was no trail, only trackless wilderness.
Ned and I pulled first travois duty.
"Ned, I'm worried about the chow situation."
"The what situation?"
"Chow! You know, food. We packed all we could carry, but with all this slogging we're eating like ten men."
"Yes, nothing like a brisk stroll to stimulate one's appetite."
"You say the strangest things, lad. Anyway, a big slab of venison would set us right. So keep an eye peeled for game sign."
"Righto, Hemingway. You expecting possibly a cape buffalo?"
Hemingway! Hah. "Ya know, for a young buck you've got some attitude. I'll bet five goats I bag the first one."
"It's a wager then."
The challenge would have to keep. The wind swelled, veering to besiege us from the north. By mid afternoon it ground the soft flakes into a maelstrom of furiously-driven, glassy crystals that stung our slitted eyes like sand. I could vaguely make out Réal behind me, struggling to make headway against the fury.
I motioned Ned to stop. Réal caught up.
"Better get under canvas on the double or we're done. Can't tell up from down."
Somehow we fought the tent up in the blizzard and battened ourselves inside. No prospect of a fire tonight. We choked down cold rations and huddled around Jack in the howling dark.
I yelled over the storm, "Jack! Hang in there! This is damn tropical compared to '44 in France. We beat that bastard. Less chance of an 88 shell crashin' this party."
He grunted almost inaudibly, "I'd invite the SOB in." I was worried to death about him.
No one else spoke. Fear shines as cold and dark in the timbre of voices as a wind-blasted rock bluff looms through the snow. Fear is a cannibal, and no sense in nourishing it.
* * *Exhaustion overcame worry. I woke to daylight and a silence disturbed only by the sound of breathing. I glanced at Jack. Still among the breathing. Thank God!
The tent flap bulged inward, holding back the new snow. I carefully eased it open and shovelled my way to freedom. And astonishment.
The sky was as blue as an Ontario larkspur. And the snow! Where was Norman Rockwell when you needed him? The gently folded, unearthly white, unblemished satin blanket supported the heavens like an upturned bowl on a bone-white china plate. Made me feel damn near poetic!
Ned crunched up from behind. "It's like a bloody Hallmark greeting card, isn't it though?"
I reflected on the callowness of youth as I glared at him.
"Well, it is rather majestic," he allowed.
There was no time to forage up wood for a cook fire. Muesli notwithstanding, it takes the gut of a horse or a Swiss to stomach raw oats, so we made do with nuts and cheese and some hard biscuits. Ned mashed the last of the berries into a snow-sugar slurry for Jack. He had trouble swallowing, but he got some of it down.
With no fire or hot chow in our bellies to thaw us, we worked like sappers to force blood out to our achy limbs. We stowed the camp in fifteen minutes. Réal made sure nothing was left buried; Ned and I set Jack up as best we could. His head lolled on the stretcher. We strapped him in securely because he was as loose as a ragdoll. And about as strong. He moaned feebly. It was plain he was close to his maker. My spirits were low.
Réal complained, "I dunno oo's eat all de food! Mais demain we gonna eat ragoût de Sorel."
"Courage, Réal! Len has arranged a fat buffalo for dinner."
"One apiece!" I willed my leaden heart to lighten for the sake of us all. I hoped it was a believable piece of acting.
The heavy new snow clutched at our snowshoes as the travois team packed a trail for the lone skier. With the sun overhead, our pace deteriorated into the slow metronomic plodding that accompanies exhaustion. Head down, drag one foot ahead of the other, repeat, ad infinitum.
Something peripheral snagged a thread in my fatigue-deadened awareness, like a rough fingernail on silk. I looked up, startled by the break in the relentlessly virgin snow. Two sets of tracks punctuated their way from west to east across our tracks, colon, umlaut, colon, umlaut, over and over. Snowshoe hares!
About fifty yards to the east of us the hares had quit typing. There they sat, drowsily sunning themselves on the western slope of a gentle rise, oblivious to human interlopers, white ghosts against the whiter-than-white snow.
Well, they weren't exactly cape buffalo, but they were lunch, if they could be coaxed to stop a 30.30 bullet. Ned and I cautiously unshipped our Winchesters from our packs. He motioned me, as the senior officer, to take first crack at it.
The rifles were sighted to be dead on at about this distance, so I figured to win the wager. As for a hare being somewhat other than a cape buffalo, I'd argue my case as for it later over hassenpfeffer. I levered a shell into the chamber, clicked off the safety carefully to avoid startling the hares, and sighted down the barrel. I squeezed the trigger. The report was deafening in the unworldly silence. There was a puff of snow just beyond my target. Shit! Missed.
The hares didn't move. They were either deaf or so sun-blissed that they slept through their attempted murder. I looked humbly at Ned. He motioned me to have another go. I had the range now, so this rabbit was in the bag. Or maybe not. This time the snow leapt about a foot to the left of my intended lunch. Again they didn't move. I sympathized with Elmer Fudd.
I shook my head and whispered, "Stupid rabbits. Too dumb to run away."
"Stupid? Smart, I'd say! Saw who was behind the trigger and figured it'd be best to sit still. That, or you've scared them to death."
Ouch! I'd thought my military training and combat experience would have told the tale. Apparently there was a significant difference between pointing a Lee Enfield at five hundred charging soldiers in voluminous greatcoats who'd rather be somewhere else, not caring which one caught your bullet, and hitting a target the size of a toaster a hundred and fifty feet away.
The worst was yet to come. As we whispered, the hares came to their senses and mobilized. Ned quickly levered in a cartridge, sighted along the barrel, tracked one of them for twenty feet and shot. The hare dropped into the reddened snow. Before it stopped twitching, he'd reloaded, fired and tagged the second in mid-bound. It spun head over cottontail twice and flopped into the soft snow. The tang of burnt gunpowder hung in the frigid air.
As the reverberations died away I stared at Ned, stunned.
He shrugged. "Lucky shots."
"Once, maybe. Twice?" I shook my head, visualizing his oil-smooth, practiced motion with the rifle.
Rallying, I offered, "I hope for now you'll take an IOU in lieu of goats."
"Well, I could use the goats, but . . . it shall have to do."
A 30.30 bullet makes a pretty good hole in a hare, but there was enough good meat remaining. Ned and I skinned them out and Réal gutted them.
My intention was to trek steadily until just before sunset. Jack's moribund appearance changed the plan. We'd be his funeral party if we pushed him any further now. All we could do was try to get some nourishment and warmth into him. Maybe we could make a few more miles after a rest.
Réal built a fire and baked some smooth tumbled granite rocks pried from an exposed creek bed. We lay Jack's stretcher on a pallet fashioned from springy cedar boughs. His respiration was ragged, irregular. When the rocks were done, we packed them around him and sealed him in with blankets.
I could just see the glint of his eyes as he tried to open them. "Y're good men, all of you. I'll put in a word," he whispered hoarsely.
I grasped his shoulder. "Save your words, Jack. You'll need 'em to tell your girl this story."
Was that a smile? If determination was a precious commodity, he had just discovered a lode of it.
Réal had those tough old hares disassembled and swimming in a hot snow-broth. We drowsed, intoxicated within the small hemisphere of warmth emanated by the cook-fire.
"Mes gars! Réveilles toi! La potage de lapin, it's ready."
The sweet aroma of cooked meat brought tears to my eyes. Was I that hungry? I'd been too dog-tired to notice.
Ned helped Jack sit up and rest his back against a heavy pack. I ladled up a bowl of steaming rich broth, cooled it with a dash of snow, and tried to spoon-feed him.
After a couple of abortive spoonfuls, he muttered weakly, "Jeezus, Len. Hold the bowl and gimme the effin' spoon."
This was the man who'd kept me alive for two weeks in the knee-deep Ardennes mud when I tried to turn myself inside out with bloody dysentery. Tremulously he managed to get a significant percentage of the bowlful into his mouth. Flashing a weak, greasy grin, he belched and said, "Jeez! I feel as strong as a rabbit already."
After eating our fill, no one wanted to dissolve the fire-cast spell that bewitched us. We sat, entranced by its crackling dance.
Strangely enough, Jack was the one to utter the incantation that freed us. "If you slackers ain't ready to march in five minutes, I'm goin' without ya."
We shook off the lethargy and got moving. With the hare stew in our bellies, spirits lifted and we found a rhythm.
"I was sure we' d lost him, Len. He's a bloody rock!"
"I tried to lose him for four years, Neddie. Can't be done. But I think we were close."
The illusion of miraculous recovery gradually evaporated into the cold air. We struggled across miles of white molasses.
I banged the compass against my leg. "Where is that damn river? We should be looking at it by now."
Ned glanced anxiously at me. I should have kept that to myself.
I was deep in my own misery when Ned excitedly cried, "What's that?"
Startled, I scanned about, expecting I knew not what. "What's what? I don't see anything."
"Not see! Hear! Don't you hear it?"
All I could hear was my heart pounding. No, there was something else! A low drone, rising and falling on the northerly breeze. "An airplane!" I cried. In France, that noise coming from the north sent you scrambling for cover. It meant Messerschmitt. You didn't want to be in the open when their eagle eyes pierced the sky above you.
But we just stood dumbstruck. A tiny dot steadily waxed in the northern sky as the sound swelled. It sprouted wings. We waved frantically. It flew by, heading south, and the buzz dwindled. I felt orphaned, abandoned. Tears welled up. "Dammit! Are those guys blind?" I cried.
"Len, we have to keep moving," Ned said gently, laying his hand on my shoulder.
I shrugged it off, took a deep breath. "Yeah, you're right."
Northward we trudged, inch by painful inch, the gusts whipping us savagely.
Suddenly the Beaver thundered overhead, waggling its wings, its engine note trailing behind it in the stiff wind. We sat back in the snow as it banked sharply, circled and landed clumsily not one hundred yards from us. None of us trusted his voice to speak. It taxied up. The door swung open and a parka-clad man leaped out and bounded toward us.
"Len! Jack! It is you guys! I can't believe it!"
"Jack's hurt bad, Axel. He's gotta get to a hospital."
Axel was the foreman of our crew. He'd been waiting for us in St James. As we hoisted Jack's stretcher into the Beaver I complained, "Why the hell'd you fly by us?"
"Yer lucky we found you at all. Just caught yer track outta the corner of my eye, so we turned and followed it until it ended."
Apparently, leaving tracks is better strategy for humans than for hares.
Ned and I clambered into the front row of seats. I clenched my eyes tightly as the overloaded Beaver lumbered across the field, tried a couple of half-hearted hops and finally managed to fling itself into the air. I'd seen how well Beavers travel through the forest.
As soon as we were decisively airborne, I expected to read the same relief written across Ned's face as on mine. But over the furrowed troughs of a deep frown, squalls of intense worry and equally furious determination scuffled. He made to climb out of his seat, or maybe his skin, several times. Each time he slumped back with an exasperated sigh. Finally he did his thing with the deep breaths and leaned toward me.
"Len, I'm going up to talk to the pilot." Without waiting for a reply, he sprang up and climbed forward.
I turned around to Axel. "Never seen skis on these birds this time a year. What gives?"
"I told ya you were lucky. We knew you were missing and hadda be down on the snow somewheres around here. We tracked down a set of skis in the back of a quonset in St James."
"And here we are. So what about Jack? He's just hangin' on, Axel."
"The pilot says we can make Kamloops. We'll tear up the skis landing there, but we can do it."
I turned around when Ned flopped back down beside me. His tense features had relaxed into bemused relief. "Well?"
He gathered his thoughts as his steel-grey glance locked with my eyes. Then he spoke, in the plummiest English tones this side of Buckingham Palace. "Uhhh, I don't quite know how to put this, Len, but I've not been exactly forthcoming as to my true identity."
I was impressed and decided to take up the linguistic challenge. "Jolly good, old boy! So who are you really? The next bloody King of England?"
He laughed and flashed his lopsided grin. "Don't be ridiculous. The next King of England will be a Queen." He paused and looked down. "My cousin Liz, actually. I'm only fifth in succession. Rather a long shot, I'm afraid."
"Your cousin Liz?" I repeated, confused. "Hah! Good one! I owe you one. So who are you really? The Green Hornet?"
With no hint of humour, "No. I'm Edward George William Windsor. Prince Edward, Duke of Gloucester, to be formal. Elizabeth is my first cousin."
For the first time since I'd met Ned, I knew in my waters he was telling the truth. This was his voice! It came to me. "Wait a minute! Weren't you in all the newspapers a coupla years back? Kidnapped from a Scottish castle, or some such thing. But there was never a ransom demand."
That grin again, and all those teeth. "Well, I wasn't about to send one, was I?"
"That's it? Unless you got a parachute, you're not quittin' on me now."
"Relax, Len. I'll make a clean breast of it."
I sat back.
"In '39 I was eleven years old. Like a lot of upper class Brits, I was evacuated for the duration."
I broke in. "That makes you twenty one. You're not a day over eighteen."
A haughty glance. "We aristocrats age quite more elegantly than you commoners, Leonard." He spoiled it with a giggle.
"I spent five glorious years boarding at an upper class school in Ontario with the most insufferably puffed-up lot of pompous gits I'd ever encountered. If I hadn't met a wild Scottish lad there who knew how to get over the wall I'd have perished of an overdose of pretentiousness. His name was Robert Fraser, may he rest." Tears moistened his eyes.
Robert Fraser. Rob! The Scot. I remembered the tear rolling down Ned's cheek as he gently closed his friend's eyes for the last time.
"His father was professor of history. Dramatic fellow. Bit of the Rob Roy in him. As with Robert." He laughed, "If I hadn't been the grandson of bloody George V we'd have been put out the door any number of times. Sorry to say I rather took advantage of my elevated station."
'The Frasers were highlanders. Back in Blighty, Robert would never have been admitted to such company. Poisonous for nobility to associate with the masses, you know. Made me sick to be part of it. Canadians appear to have left that bit out of their suitcases when they fled Europe. Good thing."
"A good Scotsman hates the English, especially ones of my ilk. We had it out early on. Called it a draw and became fast friends. He called me a rogue Sassenach for my disdain of my fellow nobles and general affinity for trouble of a Scottish nature. Somehow we both managed to top the class, I suspect just to get up the noses of those knobs."
"The war ended and home I went. I was immediately packed off to an officers' academy to learn the ways of the ruling class. Drank port, played polo and rode to hounds a lot. I won the marksman's plate the two years I was there."
"Well, Edward, I don't feel so bad about my shameful performance on the great rabbit hunt now."
"Actually, I feel somewhat ashamed of my performance. Could have missed at least one of them to save your pride."
"Long gone, Ned. Beyond saving."
He smiled. "Hard to explain, but Canada changed something in me. Ruined it, actually. I could hardly tolerate the restrictions and expectations of life as a Duke. You're thinking 'Poor sad Edward, such a difficult life', and wondering how hard to punch me on the nose."
"You have to admit, it's not quite up there with starving to death, Ned. But I can kind of see your point."
"As little Duke Edward I felt like an orang-utan in the London Zoo, people constantly cooing over me, popping pictures of me. A wonder they weren't all equipped with bananas. In Ontario, when Robert and I went adventuring, I was no one, just another lad up to no good. In '45 we even spent a night in jail, after knicking a case of beer from a lorry and being caught with the last drops of evidence. Ah, he was trouble in tartan, that Robert. But he showed me what it was to be free."
"We'd kept in touch all the while. Can't say whether it was my idea or his, but in '47 we hatched a plan for my rescue. I was to summer in the Scottish highlands at the family's cottage, a two hundred room castle, complete with moat. He'd sent me his identity papers. We looked enough alike, and I can spit out a passable brogue."
"The night of June 24 was a typical highlands summer evening. Torrential rain driving in sideways from all directions at once. Ah well, it would cover the sounds of the scuffle that wouldn't be happening. I threw my chambers into a shambles, tore up some bedclothes and mortally wounded a pillow. Don't know what I was on about. Would they think I'd attacked my kidnapper with a pillow? Or been taken by chickens? I'd the wing of the castle to myself, so it was an easy kidnapping. Broke the lock on the door, tramped mud up and down the stairs, shouldered my pack, and was off on to the moors.”
"Long and short of it, I survived two bloody horrible nights in the hills, hitched out to Inverness on a farmer's lorry, unbeknownst to the farmer, caught the train to Dundee, and got myself a working berth on a steamer to Halifax. Wonder that I wasn't caught several times. Looked pitiful enough to leave alone, I should imagine."
It was a tale right out of Conan Doyle!
"It went off swimmingly. Robert had my telegram and stood on the pier in Halifax. The rest, as you say, is history. There was always labour for a man who would put his shoulder into it. We'd work a while and get on, or under, a train when it became a bore. Finally we stood with our feet in the Pacific Ocean. Heard about this survey job, lied about our experience, and got on." He sighed sadly. "Wish to hell we never had."
He wiped his reddened eyes. "Anyway Len, you wanted to know how one gets from being a Duke to low man on a labour crew. There it is."
I didn't know what to say. So I did what comes naturally. I acted the smartass. "I didn't hear much about goats in there, Ned. I'm thinking you lied about them too."
"First goat I ever met was after my kidnapping. Shared a barn with one in the hills above Loch Ness. Honestly, I can't see the attraction. But I'll be happy to send you one when I get home."
"Home? You're going home? Why? I thought you hated it."
"So did I. So much so that I tore the hearts out of my family just to escape. They'll never forgive me. But I have to go home now. I'm ready."
"I don't understand."
"I hardly do myself. But these two years in exile have started something in me. I know I can get on without my titles and privileges. But they're a gift that few men ever receive. I have to learn how to use them. I know I'm sounding like a bloody patronizing idiot, but . . .you've heard of noblesse oblige?"
"Yeah. That's the thing where the lucky ones are supposed to take care of the unlucky ones."
"Elegantly put, Len. In any case, I didn't understand it until now."
"Robert was the force behind this entire caper. Had been since the day I met him. He'd lead, I'd follow. Our only aim was adventure. These past few days, for the first time in my life, I've done for others. I like it. Damn shame it took Robert's dying to wake me up. I can't let that go for naught."
"I get it, Ned. You're an honourable fellow, for a Duke. So what's next? You'll probably come to your senses any moment and change your mind."
"Ah, there's the catch. I can't. I've just told the pilot that he has the Duke of Gloucester on board. He's radioed the airport."
Kamloops materialized off our port wing and the Beaver banked sharply over the snow-dusted hills.
"Well then. Better make our goodbyes now. The moment that door swings open a contingent of large horsy-smelling men in funny striped pants and stiff hats will be eager to make your acquaintance."
Wryly Ned answered, "More likely a contingent of very large men in white jackets."
We laughed until the tears came. I scribbled an address on a scrap of paper and handed it to him.
The Beaver made it to the ground, skis and all. An ambulance idled by the tiny terminal as we taxied up. The cabin door swung open. Three men hustled Jack into the ambulance. It roared across the tarmac, siren wailing.
The moment Jack's stretcher was clear of the door, an authoritative voice growled, "Stay in your seats!" The aforementioned contingent swarmed in and extracted the Duke of Gloucester from his seat like a bad tooth. They frogmarched him none too gently to a paddy-wagon, which tore off after the ambulance. Edward George William Windsor was gone like the wind.
Only to reappear in all the papers the next morning. I scarcely recognized him in his clean-shaven face and dapper business suit. He looked even younger, and every inch the handsome prince. The story was just as he had told me. He was flown home to a family reunion I'd have given anything to have witnessed.
I returned to my boarding-house in Vancouver. I needed a break from plane crashes and royal rogues. I missed Ned though. From far different worlds, we'd become fast friends.
* * *About a month later I was frying up some breakfast and there was a knock on the door. A deliveryman, accompanied by a large crate, swiss-cheesed with small holes. There was a UK return address stamped on it. Stickers plastered all over it proclaimed "Livestock".
"Oh no! You bastard! You didn't!" I laughed nervously.
I had to sign for it. It was mine. The crate sat on the front porch, staring me down as my forsaken sausages burnt to cinders. Finally I sighed and went in search of a crowbar and a rope.
All was suspiciously calm. I wrestled the top off it and peered in. Nothing! Wait. There was an envelope stapled to the side. I tore it off and pulled out a note.
"Got you, didn't I?" was all it said. But nestled beside the note was a first-class Trans-Canada Airlines ticket to London.
This scenario has been repeated, sans crate, every year since then. Ned and I have spent many happy days hiking the Lakes District and the Scottish Highlands and comparing tales. He never did make King, and it's even more of a long shot now. But formerly unlucky people all over the planet will swear that the world has been a much better place for Ned's being in it.