Episode 59 - Good luck doesn't come in odd numbers

Far from being a minor annoyance, my boredom started to be major problem and “boredom” almost got me killed. The snowfall had lingered for another week, making my life even worse. Stuck inside the cave, I was running out of things to do. I had already fixed Dr. Johnson’s tracking device the day before. Curiosity once again struck. Besides, it was hard to ignore the fact that Ben was still out there and I wasn’t doing anything to find him. I decided to ignore the bad weather and put the tracking device to work. The second blizzard brought another 2 feet of snow to the ridge. Winds gusting to over 80 km/h had caused enormous drifting by on Monday. I knew things weren’t good when I had to dig about 6 feet of snow to get outside the cave. There were noticeable changes to the mountain landscape. I felt like a Star Wars rebel looking for Luke Skywalker in the frigid Planet Hoth. I turned the tracking device on and walked to a clearing by the river in hopes to get a better signal. The wind was strong and hard little pelts of snow kept peppering me in the face. I put my goggles on and headed down to the river bank. I kept moving the metal box around like it was a metal detector or something. Suddenly a faint little red dot came blinking on the screen. - Could it be? - I said it out loud. Following the built-in electronic compass on the screen I started heading northeast. The screen showed the red dot’s position: about 3 clicks away, across the river on the east side of Mulberry Mountain. - Ha! I’m a genius! - I screamed excited as I walked through the river rocks. But there was a problem: I still had to cross the river. Usually I used one of waterfalls by the cave as a bridge. But I was afraid of going back and loosing Ben’s signal. Following a few big rocks across the river I finally found myself with no where to go. I had to jump at least 6 feet to get to the other side without falling in the water. I was determined to make it across without getting myself wet. I noticed if I went back a few yards I could cross to the other side by walking on shallow water and then by following a giant bolder to drier ground. It worked like a charm. My feet got a little colder but otherwise I was pretty dry. The red dot was still parked on the same spot. I picked up the pace and hoped for the best. It was 1300 hours when I left Penn’s Cave and I set a turnaround time of 1530 hours for myself. I wasn't sure if I could make it to the Mulberry Mountain side in that time, but I knew I didn't want to get stuck up there in the dark. I did pack my headlamp, but I didn't want to have to use it. Once I got close to tree line, the wind started to pick up and it pushed me up the hill. My white winter jacket worked as a sail. That was the easiest hike in the snow I ever done. Not far beyond the tree line, a towering rocky outcropping called Mulberry Landing, slowly appeared through the milky snowfall. I was pretty close, I had to be. The blinking dot was finally solid red. I looked around and back to the screen. All I could see was a few straggling trees and mounds of snow. Nothing else. Was Ben dead? Buried by the snow? Or was the tracking device not working at all? I started to wonder what in the hell I was doing. - Ben…!!! Can you hear me? It’s me, John! Are you here? - I yelled careless, not even concerned I could’ve caused an avalanche. The wind unexpectedly stopped. - What the? - I looked to my left and there he was running down the mountain side, like a scared rabbit. - Wait! - I yelled. But he kept on running. I put the metal box away, turned into the face of the wind and took off after him. - Wait! - I yelled again. Ben didn’t even look back. He was still wearing his old uniform but nothing else. How could it be? In this kind of weather? My leg muscles burned as I tried to move fast across the knee high snow. Ben was going much faster. I felt the terrain below my feet change from soft to hard. I slid a couple of times on what seemed to be a rocky ledge, till I finally wiped out, face first down the hill side. - Damn it! - I cursed. I looked up. Some distance away, Ben raced towards a dense patch of trees and disappeared. What’s wrong with him? What did they do to him? Exhausted, I looked at the time: 1600 hours! I had to get back, fast. I looked up to see if my tracks were still there from my way down, but they weren't. Even the holes that took a whole leg had been blown over by the drifting snow and disappeared. Frenetically, I started touching the pockets of my vest, looking for my GPS receiver. I lost it! It probably felt out of my pocket while I was chasing Ben down the hill. I grabbed the tracking device in hopes to use its compass but its screen didn’t turn on. - Damn it! Damn it! - I cursed again kicking snow around with my foot. I could tell I didn’t have much light left. I tried unsuccessfully to find the receiver, wasting precious time. I was where I wasn't supposed to be. I wasn’t sure which direction to take. My mind had one message for me: KEEP going DOWN! I kept a steady pace down the mountain. I looked around trying to recognize any aspect of the landscape to tell me which way to turn. I started a zigzag pattern in the hopes I'd cross a trail, but it just landed me in around some thick snow covered scrub trees. I had no time to spare. I couldn’t go back, since going up meant going the wrong way. I kept going straight, recklessly cutting across the small fragile trees. When I finally made it through them, I realized I was lost. My hands were cold and my boots were no longer doing their job. - I would never make it back to the cave in time - I thought. - A shelter! I need to build a shelter! - I told myself while looking for a descent spot. To the right a saw a small step, a twenty foot gain up a rock band then one grassy plateau. - There! - Using my machine gun’s stock as a shovel, I started digging up a hole under the snow covered step. I had to stop digging several times in order to warm up my hands. After digging a 5 feet deep hole, I hit a bit of ice. I switched from gun to ice-pick. The sun went down fast and I could feel the temperature dropping. I dug faster. From the distance I could see a lonely wolf howling. He didn’t seem to care about me. By the time I finished digging he was already gone. I had spent almost 3 hours working on my shelter. Using a piece of fabric from the inside of my jacket I started a small fire. Before I went in for the night, I made sure my roof was secure. Once inside the shelter, I couldn't stop thinking about what I had seen that afternoon. It wasn’t normal. My dear friend Ben, what have they done to you?

by Corporal John Harris, November 30, 2006