Polar Uproar…

A ‘must read’ inspirational short story…

Be swept away under the guise of wild exploration,

to a remote place with cruel & inconceivable consequences!

The latest in the ten-minute thriller series.

Explore further at “Readers of the Lost Arkives!”

 

“The Winning Way”

Saving the Big White Teddy

By Stephen James

                Confronted odds before, have you? Success can come at an extreme price, but the right state of mind can overcome the hefty bill. Or are there some things in life which are simply too pricy? This piece of writing is an enhanced extract from my latest, however, yet to be published novel. I hope and trust this snippet makes you cringe with emotional excitement…

 

When he left the backstreets of Oslo some thirty-plus years ago, Lars Smirkesdrom had no idea of the turnaround his life would be taking. The orphaned child, raised by a widowed Swedish émigré who drove taxis for a living, also gave him her name — calling him Lars after her late husband. Due to low income, they existed in squalor in rented accommodation, as Norway is and always has been, a very expensive country to reside in. He clawed his way through school, only to discover himself back on the streets when poor results left him shy of further tertiary education. Only his English marks were reasonable. The brilliant education system of Norway assists wherever possible, but his flagging results severely thwarted his chances. His mind seemed to be filled with a strange dream dispiriting the boy’s ability to concentrate. However, determined Lars refused to become a failure. After his step-mother’s passing, when at the tender age of sixteen, he made his way across to Bergen, the second largest city, with her dowry of just under five-hundred Kroner. Here on the western coast, Lars eventually took a lowly job at the Fish Me Fishmarket, to commence scrounging his way through night school where he blossomed. Smirkesdrom slept with the stench of fish on a mattress in his boss’s garage. This manual work made him physically strong to match his Nordic box-jaw features. He stood tall and proud, knowing now what his confused child’s mind was all about. With the small amount of leftover Kroner, he purchased books about the North Pole, Antarctica, Greenland, Canada and Alaska. His burning desire to visit these frozen wildernesses accelerated with each book. Smirkesdrom devoured them at the hasty rate that a regular child devours cookies. The man had a steel-trap memory which seemed to remember every word he read. This all occurred during the early 1990’s.

Within six years, Lars had received his master’s degrees in fluvial hydrology, cryosphere modelling, geomorphology, and glaciology at the University of Bergen. In his limited spare time, he had not only climbed all seven mountains surrounding the city of Bergen but also travelled all the way to Skarsvåg, one of the northernmost villages of Norway. It was here where Lars met his future wife, Imogen Aundörsen. She was a Danish solicitor holidaying with her brother — they were married within four months. Here also at Skarsvåg, was where the dogged Norwegian fell in love with his first polar bear. So taken by these massive mammals was he, that animal conservation became yet another string in his multi-talented bow. He also visited the three main Islands of Svalbard in the Arctic Ocean, roughly centred on 78.4° north latitude and 20.7° east longitude, to study the Great Northern Lights. Another trip saw him visit the Kodiak Archipelago, to indulge in the huge brown Kodiak Bears there.

As global warming became taken a bit more seriously, Lars Smirkesdrom’s work took him to the far north of many countries; those being the ones he had read about when unloading multiple catches at the Fish Me Fishmarket in Bergen as a youth. By 2008 he had documented and predicted the shrinkage of many Alaskan, Canadian and Greenland glaciers as well as many in his home of Norway. The selfless scientist also had extensive knowledge about ice shelf shift and the icebergs that are produced. After spending countless years, pursuing his passion for saving endangered species of wildlife, particularly the very threatened polar bear, Lars’ work took him deep inside the Arctic Circle. These gargantuan sheets of ice are the homes and livelihoods to all of these vanishing creatures. As a fully-trained glaciologist and geologist, tracking the movement of Arctic ice-flows, huge rogue ’bergs, centuries-old glaciers, and monster ice shelf shifts with minimal regard for his own forthcoming, this dangerous profession had reinforced his character. It strengthened and matured this humble orphaned boy from the backstreets of Oslo. It is during a savage winter in 2009 on the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf, part of the Ellesmere Island Ice Shelf at Nunavut, Canada, when our story ignites…

After millenniums of frozen solidarity, Ellesmere Island has now fractured into numerous smaller shelves, with Ward Hunt being the largest. This four-hundred-square-kilometre shelf is also on the move, and the icebergs released by the breakup now pose a potential danger to shipping and offshore development in the region. However, the danger is far greater than that, because the massive loss of microbial ecosystems caused by the release of the freshwater, may also have far-ranging ecological impacts. The breakup of the Ward Hunt Ice Shelf is tied to steady and dramatic increases in the average temperature of the region over the past decades — in correlation with volcanic activity as well as human intervention. Smirkesdrom was out surveying the episodic (variable) travel speed of Ellesmere’s Mittie Glacier with his trusted sled-hauling team made up of five Alaskan Malamutes and four Northern Inuit Dogs. The faithful hard-working animals were his extended family. Lars loved them all. He slept with them. He ate with them. He spoke to them. The sensitive scientific instruments, along with all their survival equipment and rations weighing many tons were bundled snugly aboard. He preferred to work for weeks at a time, alone. Then, he would return home to visit Imogen where they now lived at Churchill, on Manitoba’s Hudson Bay. Lars guided his dogsled team down a steep slope, in his back, the unrelenting one-hundred kilometre-per-hour Katabatic wind was biting like a shark-infested sea. Katabatic is the name given to a drainage wind; a powerful wind that carries high-density air from a higher elevation down a slope under the force of gravity. They do not always travel at high speed, but today’s bitter chill had the inertial force of a freight train. His dogs were having trouble holding their footing in the snow. Visibility was poor. They had been mushing for seven hours — a respite was overdue. Lars looked for a sheltering wall of ice and called to his lead dog;

“Whoop Genghis Khan! Wooh boy!” he shouted through the blizzard. They pulled up beside the partial shelter, but the wind still whistled in an angular fashion, albeit with far less velocity. “We shall take some time to re-energise. I bet you are all rather hungry — as I am!” They woofed and howled in doggy excitement, as he patted the tops of their heads between each pair of eager ears.

Lars began unpacking their dry food as well as the packages of frozen chicken. He fired-up the multi-gas-burner-stove to heat some snow in a large metal pan. Once warm, he dropped the packs in, to thaw, creating their favourite — chicken soup, after which they drank the soup-water. The team feasted ravenously, while Lars set up his radio to give a routine check-in call to the base, located over four-hundred kilometres away at Eureka on Ellesmere Island. He ate whilst speaking…

“Roger that, Alphonse… I’d say I require about, oh another forty-eight hours, to complete the cross-referencing factors. And yes, the boys and I are doing just fine. A bit chilly right now, so we are having supper. I can’t wait to see you guys, once more! I shall be heading off, in about eight hours, to the Loop Moraine’s crack zones for my final measurements, after this blessed Katabatic hopefully slows down. It is picking up a lot of loose snow — I can hardly see a thing.”

“Okay, Lars. We will organize the CH-47 (Chinook tandem-rotor heavy-lifting helicopter) to pick you up, immediately after you send the signal from LM. Over—”

Lars eventually signing off… “Excellent, Alphonse. Tell Erik that he was correct about the new doggy treats, the boys have got far more endurance now. Smirkesdrom over and out!” He shouted over the howling gale-force wind, then continued eating after hauling out a crumpled photograph of a starstruck Imogen under the Aurora Borealis. He was sitting on his sled. Although he couldn’t distinguish her face, his eyes smiled at the picture from behind his goggles.

In split-seconds it happened…

Genghis Khan was first to react, followed by the other eight. All at once a frenzy of yelping and barking stirred Lars’ concentration. The dogs were going ballistic — hanging off their harnesses, teeth exposed by folded-back gums. He glanced up. Smirkesdrom’s breath vanished from his lungs. A huge polar bear stood upright on his hind legs, only metres from them. Suddenly, he heard the full brunt of its chuffing roar. The massive brute started hissing and champing his teeth — Lars knew this to be the sounds made by an angry or hungry bear. He feared for his dog-team, knowing that the smell of their chicken must have drawn the bear in. It had to have emerged from the teeth of the downwind. In the whiteout, Smirkesdrom’s eyes could scarcely focus on the carnivore’s outline against the snow. Only its black nose was clear through his goggles. He could tell from the steep angle its growl was coming from, that this creature stood at least four metres tall. “Easy now, my Big White Teddy friend. (this was his pet-name for these splendid beasts) Take it easy. Nobody’s going to hurt you…” His Norwegian voice calm but directed. Lars was eye-to-eye with it — he knew that fear would only let him down.

Somehow, it seems the polar bear had the upper hand in this one. It dropped back down on all fours and Genghis Khan pounced at the bear’s throat. A terrible mistake…

“No! Get back Genghis! Get back!”

It was not the first time this team had been confronted by a hunting Polar. Now, after five years together, it was their sixth confrontation. But this one was particularly big. The lead dog’s natural territorial-zone instincts, coupled with the protection of his master took over, swamping his canine mind. The black and white Alaskan Malamute collected a front paw far larger and heavier than his own head. The powerful claws had torn clean through the harness. The hefty force swept the dog aside like a furry rag doll severing a bloody gash in his neck. He laid still and stunned. The Northern Inuits raced in, persuaded by wolf-like predispositions. The bear reared back up onto his hind legs. At right-angles to the sled, these dog’s still-tethered harnesses held them at bay — their combined strength nearly toppling the sled and precariously thrusting Lars onto the snow, at the immense white beast’s planted hind paws. His goggles flew aside. He was well within its striking range.

The helpless glaciologist stared up. “My God, look at the size of you, my boy!”

The bear let out a lung-crunching roar. The other eight dogs fell silent. Smirkesdrom’s mind, racing for a solution, knew that the blood-splattered Genghis was what the bear desired, and he lay in the way. His pulse-rate hammered. He glanced at his oldest dog, breathing feverishly, several metres to the left. His provisions did not carry a rifle, and besides, Lars would never use one on a wild animal if he had it anyway. Genghis’ head raised from the snow. He whined and struggled to stand but couldn’t. It looked like the end…

Lars felt the cold no more. “Easy teddy,” he said gently, using eye contact. “Take it easy and we’ll all be happy. I know what you want—”

The eight-hundred-kilogram white bear thundered an even louder growl. Lars, on his hands and knees, backed away slowly. It took a violent swipe. He felt the rush of wind, as five claw-tips ripped his parka. Then a second swipe nicked his face — he felt as if hit by a baseball bat and could have easily suffered a broken neck. The force spun him away landing face up near the sled. All ten lives balancing on a knife’s edge. Smirkesdrom seized an armful of spilt thawed chicken packages and hurled them at the starving creature. Then grabbed some more…

In an unusual standoff scene, the gigantic bear flicked his massive head from side-to-side, then flopped onto the snow to commence gorging on the raw meat. Lars had lost a Siberian Husky once before, about two years ago, under similar circumstances, but managed to spare Genghis’ life by some quick thinking. He gave the endangered bear over twenty kilograms of the dogs’ provisions, talking to it constantly, in awe of its magnificence, before watching it lumber off through the snow. Next, he picked up the Malamute’s injured body and wrapped him up in his spare parka. “You’ll be travelling back on the sled, old mate. There will be no more showing-off on this mission, for you!”

The bonded team rested — as per the original plan. Betrayed by emotion, Smirkesdrom struggled to sleep. There is no daytime/night-time up here. The weak sun merely moves in a circular orbit, up and down around the horizon showing itself, before bobbing down behind one of the vertical sheets of ice, about the height of The Empire State Building. It is something you get used to. Lars had taken a good long look at his dominant Malamute and decided that he would survive the rest of the assignment. They set off after another meal…

After travelling for five hours in the direction of the Loop Moraine’s crack zones, Lars pulled the entourage to a halt. “Whoop Buster! Wooh boy!” Second-in-line Buster had resumed lead dog duties. The Northern Inuit was really a wheel dog, but he knew how and when to stand up to the plate, having heard all the commands a thousand times before. “Goodness gracious me,” whispered the concerned scientist, from atop the crest of a colossal plateau. He knew where he was, but it had altered dramatically since his last visit. He raised his goggles, allowing his eyes a clearer scan for the safest route down the near-perpendicular icy face. The relentless and reinvigorated Katabatic wind vortexed its way over to his extreme right. A clear picture of the highly-condensed snow-filled air spoke to him. On the left, it was a lot less powerful but the face there was much steeper. He decided on the right using a traversing angle to reduce the slope. “Mush, Buster! Mush! Mush!”

An hour of freezing hell later, they neared the bottom, then suddenly, the world fell away from beneath them…

His expedition had survived a fearsome, Big White Teddy, near-death experience, only hours before. But this challenge was nothing, compared to the one he had to face, after tumbling into a deep crevasse with his dogsled team and landing precariously on a plateau of ice barely the size of his lounge room floor. Below that, the chasm’s bottom fell away — hundreds of metres in the darkness. This was every ice traveller’s nightmare; dark, silent, motionless, freezing, injured and alone. Lars unconscious. The only noise was the whining coming from his nine companions. Wounded Genghis had been tossed out on impact, but he was a tough dog — Lars’ parka helped to cushion his injuries. One by one they scrambled out of the tangled mess of harnesses and strewn provisions. It took Smirkesdrom over an hour to regain consciousness, then search and fumble for the radio. He stared up at the dim light streaming down from the narrow jaws of the ravine, hoping the transmitter was still working and praying that the signal would reach the rescue squad. His mind thinking; ‘I reckon… perhaps old Genghis would have drawn the sled to a halt.’

A faint signal reaching Eureka base commenced; “Hello, its Lars here, Alphonse. I never made it to the moraine loops. I have made a terrible error of judgement — must have had my damned eyes closed.” He calmly gave his situation and GPS coordinates to the scientific team. A discussion followed.

Before signing off — “Roger that location, Lars. It will be a few hours till we arrive. I meant to warn you yesterday, that Crevasse 835 LM had extended another fifteen kilometres east. But I figured you would be coming in further from the west— my humblest apologies, sir. Alphonse out…”

He envisioned; The steep route would’ve been the correct one!

To his enthrallment, miraculously, all nine dogs had survived the more than eighty-metre fall. Only two broken legs between them. They all huddled next to Lars to keep him warm and alive until the CH-47 Chinook helicopter arrived. After fourteen hours of motionless wait, finally, rescuers managed to airlift his freezing body back to civilization. The catastrophic fall had shattered his spine. Wheelchair-bound forever, Lars never complained, claiming the fall had been his own fault. A far greater fall for him, was the one from grace, with his wife Imogen walking out because of her inability to deal with the total paralysis. This shattered his heart…

The fear of confronting life alone, and a reconvened outlook, gave birth to Smirkesdrom still travelling the world, but this time not to save his beloved polar bears. Throughout recovery, he wrote a self-help book titled; ‘The Winning Way’. Lars Smirkesdrom now holds free lectures to the hopeless and underprivileged of this world, to motivate and inspire them on to achieve greater things. During these seminars, he refers way back to his childhood woes and lessons learned. He speaks highly of the ice wilderness’s beauty. He teaches kindness to animals. Then, he thanks the wonderful sled dogs for saving his life. Never does he grumble about the poor hands which he got fortuitously dealt thrice in life: Orphaned at four, a quadriplegic at forty-seven and thirdly abandonment. Donated royalties from the multi-million selling manuscript he wrote — along with five other great works to date, have funded a foster home for ill-fated children in Norway…

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Buckle-Up readers… your next chilling ten-minute thriller!!!

There’s nothing like an unsolved mystery to keep your

     inquisitive nose poked toward the what-ifs!

          Sleuthing is for anyone who dares…

                Or is it?

 

“An Axeman to the Rescue?”

by Stephen James

 

                Solving murder is a specialist’s job. It certainly is not an enviable task, well… not for the layman or lily-livered fainthearted kind. Think if you wish, about the unknown possibilities or probabilities available, not to mention the sight ─ after discovery, many hours thereafter. Accusations, would-be, could-be, and may-bes begin to flourish as new evidence emerges.
Unless that is, of course, there isn’t any…

A lean brindle and white Staffordshire bull terrier dog lay across a mound of soil. He wasn’t fidgeting in any way. Just… lying there. It was a scorcher and he looked tired. The metre-high mound carried a wisp of bush-couch that really could have used the same water as this poor old dog. He was miles from anywhere. The time is now, but this tale goes back a long way. Thargomindah is an outback town in Queensland Australia. The last official census, back in 2016 declared 270 to be the population. The shire of Bulloo, where the fractionally-just-above a whistle-stop town rests, is 1,100 kilometres west of Brisbane. Time moves slowly out here. Visitors are scarce. Everyone knows practically everyone, and their memories go deep. It’s hot. It’s dry. It’s dusty.

… And, a traveller who suddenly caught sight of the animal, pulls up in the red outback dust. The drifting cloud swamps the dog, but he doesn’t flinch an ear. He steps out, FWD door is left open. “What’s up fella? You look a little lost.” He offered his inverted hand. “I have a drink for you.” He unscrewed his drink-bottle, saw it was low and poured it into his palm. The dog lapped feverishly till the bottle was empty. The stranger ruffled the dog’s ears with the palm of his hand. When done, the good-Samaritan tried to encourage the pooch off the mound and into his truck. No dice. A growl sufficed to tell him to move on. He left his five-minute-friend, to head for town. The dog watched him leave then re-rested his head between his paws.

Half-an-hour’s drive sat his truck outside The Bent Horseshoe Motel, where the traveller stood booking his next week’s accommodation, listening to the answers to his questions.

“You see, ‘e used to belong to Katie Mulling-Brown,” yarned the motel’s owner, cigarette in his mouth, beer in his hand. “She was the daughter of old Sid and Daphne Mulling-Brown. Never came back to town after she went missing. Some folks say he’s been seen layin’ out there somewhere. But, you’re the first to say he let ya touch him. Don’t know how he’d survive. Poor thing. His name was Axeman. She had an imagination, did young Katie. Stay away friend, that’s all I can say. Rumour has it she was murdered… Nothing’s been proven. No body. No evidence. Just a few stories about boy trouble. Hostile stuff and very loud arguments. She probably lives out at Cunnamulla now. Bloody dog’s most likely waitin’ for ‘er. Like I said before. It was over three years ago now, folks have all but forgotten. Most just ‘aven’t forgiven her for walkin’ out on her mutt!”

“Police investigate?”

“Nah. We only got one cop. He’s busy handing out the odd traffic ticket and enjoying a beer or two. We usually chip in for each other for any traffic offences, then Stan brings the cash into the bar! Everybody’s friendly ‘round here. Ya have ta be, matey.”

“All sound’s way too spooky for me, fella. I’ve come here to look for work. I’m just a bloody stockman. Reckon she may return after all. I sure hope so. Poor bastard,” said the man, thinking about the dog and how far back on the main road he had left him.

The motel owner offered a steely stare, then spoke beside his mouthed cigarette, eyes squinting from its tip’s swirling smoke. “Have a good stay, pal. Good luck finding work.”

“Thanks for the heads up, mate,” replied the weary roamer. “It’s a good story none-the-less!” He gathered his bag and trudged off to the humble lodgings, thinking; People don’t get murdered all the way out here. Too many spies to get away with that!

At six-fifteen the following morning, the man was awoken by a noise outside his motel room’s door. He wiped the road grime from his eyes and opened the weathered door.

“What the devil?” he whispered. His early-morning eyes locking-on with the Staffordshire’s sallow dark pair behind it, tail wagging. “How did you know where to…? More importantly Why in Heaven’s name?” The dog circled the small floor rug and yelped quietly several times. More water and the man’s half-eaten dinner were quickly disposed of. “Now what?” asked the man, watching the estranged-minded dog leap into his truck’s rear tray, with a bark. “Got nowhere to go?” More barking. “Got something to show me?” He unlocked the cab, let the hound scamper aboard and headed back to where they’d met, under barked instructions. Once there, the battle-scarred animal leapt from the window and fussed over the mound. The stockman had nowhere else to turn. After his recently made acquaintance, his mind was now intimately involved. The humble man-of-the-land was as tough as goat’s knees ─ he had seen it all in his days and not many things could ruffle his feathers. This was a fellow who’d be very useful to have in your corner.

An hour’s digging of the mound did not reveal a body, such as the thoughts running the gauntlet of his mind had predetermined. The man whose massive frame made his shovel appear like a teaspoon, persisted, inspired by the panache of his yelping four-legged teacher. Carefully he tilled through the compacted soil. Watching. Waiting. Hoping. At last, an object appeared in the sun. But it was not what he had expected…

A little bit of finesse soon exposed a length of chain. At one end was a loop of links, at the other a tatty collar. Axeman pounced into life, seizing the collar between his teeth. “Poor old bastard,” he said to the dog ─ mind an avalanche with negative thoughts about how Katie must have dumped it and her dog, to escape her ill-fated love life. “Is this yours? S’pose you want me to take you for a walk now, hey fella?” Axeman did not yield his old chain. Instead, he leapt back into the FWD’s cab and nose-pointed through the windscreen. “I’m Jake, in case you didn’t know,” he mentioned, almost believing the dog could understand. “What the hell is it this time? Where to? What is it that you know?” Jake grew suspicious but believed the town’s lawman to be disinterested.

He followed the dog’s crude yapping instructions. In an area which comprises of about as many roads, as occasions when a lawyer undercharges you, a simple nose-pointing woof here and there easily guided them to a quiet destination. He shut off the motor. Jake accidentally bumped his truck’s horn. Axeman dropped the dirt-clogged leash onto Jake’s lap, who now sat fondling the chain while looking sideways out the window at a tired wooden house. It had a feverishly-rusting corrugated-iron roof. The house sat about eighty metres down a gravel driveway, beyond a locked three-barred timber gate. Man-mountain Jake felt fairly secure beside his new four-legged pal. However, it did not stop him from wondering why he had allowed himself to become involved. He took a heavy breath and stared. The canine whined with importance in his doggy voice as Jake looked down at him.

Within seconds the front door opened, revealing an unshaven man in his sixties, of average height and stature. “What do you want?” he shouted, without leaving the shallow front porch.

“I’m just taking a look around, friend!” Jake hollered back. “Looking for work!”

“You won’t find any here mister. Now, get going!” The veteran’s voice was aggressive and had an unpleasant dismissive tone associated.

Axeman growled, just out of sight, below the dashboard. “Easy fella,” said Jake, cautioned by the dog’s response to the man’s rudeness also.

“What’s going on, Pop, is it trouble?” asked a much younger man who’d arrived alongside the older man. He was carrying a rifle. Axeman elevated his angst, staying out of sight.

“I know when I’m not welcome!” yelled Jake, starting his engine. “So long gentlemen!”

Back at his room, at The Bent Horseshoe Motel, he lay on the bed thinking – Axeman by his side. Do I go to the police and tell the only person in town who seems likely to listen? Or is this animal simply planting false ideas into my head? Stan, I believe his name was…

“We’ll go and see him tomorrow, fella. It is the best way,” he said, patting the grungy old mutt on his head. Axeman whined as if agreeing. “But for tonight, you wait here. I am going to the local. Check out if I can scrounge up some work.” Axeman shot a short sharp yap back and rested his head between his paws. Jake dozed off with the chain and collar on the bed beside him.

At 6.00 pm, after showering, Jake drove through the heart of the outback town and chose one of the pubs. A weathered sign hung on an angle from its searing roof swaying in the hot evening breeze displaying the name; The Last Watering Hole Hotel. He heard its internal rowdiness before climbing from his cab. A stale smell of spilt beer wafted from the door. It brought back memories for Jake, who’d been off the wagon for over a year, since his wife Mel had passed away. It was casual work that had brought him here to these ramshackle digs, not liquor. In his dinner-plate sized hand, the burley-shouldered stockman carried Axeman’s collar and chain. It coiled around his wrist. He’d figured it might come in handy, if any trouble started. The murmur settled slightly when his massive frame ducked through the doorway, but soon rekindled when he smiled heartily to the locals, hat in hand. Across the room, Jake noticed a policeman’s uniform. Inside it stood the cantankerous stranger who’d sent him packing hours earlier. He was joking around with a small group of dirty-looking men and two rough-edged women. Their raucous laughter rose above the rest of the bar’s occupants. The policeman did not acknowledge any recognition. Jake simply figured that he must have not seen his face earlier, and so, saw the opportunity to introduce himself more formally and on more amicable terms. Perhaps book a meeting for tomorrow to inform him of his odd findings. He approached the group. “My name’s Jake MacOrigan, sir. Don’t know if you remember, but earlier on today we met.”

“OH, really? Where did we meet, Mr MacOrigan?” asked the officer, shaking Jake’s outstretched hand. His stare fixed firmly on the coiled links and thick studded-leather collar.

“I think I may have been at your place by a coincidence. But it doesn’t matter now. My mistake. Can I see you about something tomorrow?”

“Sure. Name’s Stan. PC Stan Mason, it stands for Police Chief, not Police Constable, okay? I’d say you were over at my brother, Vincent’s. Not a very friendly guy. He’s my older brother, we’re often mistaken by passers-by. Nine in the morning do you?’ His eyes still fixed incongruously downwards.

“I’ll be there, sir, on the button…”

“Where did ya get that from, Mr MacOrigan?” He nodded at Jake’s arm.

“It just turned up. I found it. I only liked it because it reminded me of a dog I once had. Keeps me thinking of him. Nostalgia reasons. No other. Why Stan?”

“My brother was a friendly bloke… till our sister’s son came to town several years back. What a handful he turned out to be. Victor moved in and Vincent changed. Never came out much. He won’t even talk to me! The deranged kid used to walk a dog around here. Exact same chain. I’d know it anywhere… It was his girlfriend at the time’s dog, though. Haven’t seen the girl or the dog for quite a while. See, she took off to Cunnamulla and took her mutt with her. Naturally, Victor is upset. Nobody bothers them and they rarely come to town. Works for us all.”

The stockman felt an urgent suspicion mounting in his brain but his manner was smooth to cover it. “It all sounds like a movie storyline to me. I just arrived in town to look for work. No point in meddling in new-town politics. I’ll see you at nine and we’ll discuss some other minor issues.” They shook hands and Jake wheeled away to leave.

“Jake!” The tubby middle-aged cop said. “Whatever you do when you leave, just be careful.”

“Thanks, I’ll take your blessing, grab some tucker here and crash for the night. Been a long day.” He knew this afternoon’s rest would serve him well. He was damned glad the dog was still back at The Bent Horseshoe Motel ─ that one he couldn’t explain. Not enough time. For certain something just wasn’t right. He discerned she may still be alive. The big question was, where?

Jake grabs a hasty over-the-counter meal, then saunters out, jumps in his truck and heads back to the house, several kilometres out of town. He knew the way and couldn’t think of anywhere better to start. What would be behind the gate? Would they both let him in? He smelt the stench of an ugly capital T ─ in trouble. If there is any sign of a girl, would she even be alive? Or dead? Or what? Or is this a wild goose chase? I must try…

He climbed the triple-barred gate and began sneaking toward the low-lit structure. Silence was his friend. As was the darkness. Jake figured as he tiptoed; I’ll have to find a rear entrance first, tread carefully and be ready for anything.

As he found the faint glow of a moth-filled porch light, a whimper caught his ear. The feeble attempt at calling-out emanated from a secondary structure further into the darkness. The call grew louder. Jake took a gamble on the house’s occupants versus the unknown situation happening inside the scruffy cobwebbed back shed. He had no time for fear. He scurried for the wall. A glimpse through a smeary window showed him just enough. Inside, under candlelight, Jake could make out the silvery metallic outline of a cage. It was a two-metre by three-metre enclosure, approximately. A woman was inside but nobody else was around. She looked dirty, tired and unhealthily thin. She had the same dog collar around her neck which was in his hand. It was chained to the cage’s bars. Same chain also. Her shabby clothes were practically non-existent. Relief flushed his body with keenness ─ she’s alive! Katie Mulling-Brown was being held captive by the young man and his demented father. He shuddered at the thought of what they may have done to her…

Jake stabbed his elbow to break the window and climbed through. He could see a large padlock’s curved chrome bar feeding snuggly through the door’s metal loops. The young woman, who was lying on her side, wobbled her head up and gave him a gratified half-smile. Jake reached for a crowbar which hung neatly beside some other corroded garden tools. He put it down when his eyes found a huge axe. His mind raced. This will blast straight through it.

The sound it made when he crunched through, in one massive blow, would have woken-up ‘The Ghost of the Lake at Thargomindah’. (But that is a whole other story).

Next thing, a door behind him allows a shard of light to pierce the candle’s glow. A thud across Jake’s neck knocks him to the ground. He falls heavily and immediately a further succession of thuds by what felt like a sports bat or similar piece of wood, like a rifle’s butt. Jake could hear two distinct male voices but it was a blur what they were saying. He felt dizzy and his breathing was subdued with a cloth rag. The girl called out. “NO!” Jake had not been sufficiently careful.

Then it happened…

A crash-of-glass brought the rest of the window in. Four brindle feet hit the shed floor. An angry canine had come to help. The power of his jaw locked-on to the arm which carried the rifle. It fell free of his grasp. The dog’s momentum had knocked Victor off his feet. Vincent tried to hinder Axeman. The dog, having no part of that, went ballistic between both men using his ferocious gnashing jawbones to their absolute pinnacle. Victor went for the gun. Axeman latched on. Both were forced to cower in the corner or suffer blood loss. In gingerly fashion, Jake scrambled to his feet and ripped the cage door open. He could see another much-smaller padlock, holding her leather collar duplicate tightly around her neck. A bowl of water sat just out of her reach. She looked terrified. Jake twisted the lock in his bare hands, in due course, managing to tear the steel ring completely away from its bindings. Katie dove straight for the water. Her immersed face guzzled as if death was only minutes away. He gave her time, using it wisely by seizing Victor’s rifle. He checked its breach was loaded. The dog’s growling was deafening. “You right to go?” She nodded. He picked her up and shouted, “Axeman! You keep them here till I give you the word! Then follow us. Got it?”

Axeman spun his body in acknowledgement, knowing he could trust him completely. A brief pause in his growling sent Jake on his way, He placed her inside the truck and grabbed his worn-out mobile telephone. It was just un-prehistoric enough to have a camera. He returned to fire-off pictures of the shed’s interior until his battery faded. “C’mon boy!” he called. Axeman backed away very cautiously, his yellowy eyes affixed on the men’s bloodied limbs. Jake shouted, with venom in his tone – eyes of resentment. “If either of you tries to follow. I’ll kill you stone dead. Is that perfectly clear?”

They left the premises and the town that night, driving past The Last Watering Hole Hotel on their way. Katie had been rescued by her own dog. Jake never did score any work in Thargomindah. They never even saw a lake on the way out of town, either. The gutsy stockman emailed the photographs to Stan, at nine o’clock the next day, with an explanation and an apology for not showing up. Axeman and Jake are now inseparable.

…And I believe Katie thinks quite a good deal of Jake MacOrigan, also.

“Howard the Saviour” – the latest ten-minute thriller!

Some stories happen without anyone even noticing…

     This is perhaps one such story.

          However… little unknown heroes can sometimes

                have an enormous impact!

 

“Howard the Saviour”

By Stephen James

 

Friendships spark at the most unexpected times. One minute we’re busy minding our own business, then, before you know it, a personality crosses your path, and life as you previously knew it has been altered forevermore. At times the new pathway is a rocky one. At other times, you wonder how you ever existed, before your new tune was being played. Let’s find out…

At sixteen years-of-age, now with the soft fleshy parts of his mouth starting to turn as grey as the hairs which sprouted from this very area, Howard took the morning’s square of sunshine to reflect back on his life. Warmed by this bright patch, on the timber decking of his master’s back porch, the crossbred chocolate-Labrador and German-shepherd dog knew his days were beginning to have numbers at the end of each. He must use them wisely. Time was precious. Life had dealt him a good hand but that’s not always the way things were.

It was England in the 1970’s. Born the runt of the litter, the puppy with one ear slightly bigger than the other, neither managing to be the standing-up type, which Shepherd’s carry so proudly atop their strong heads, Howard had to fight for his mother’s attention. She was the purebred Labrador. Dad was a near-pure Shepherd police dog. At twelve weeks, he found out about loneliness for the first time when all of his eight brothers and sisters were long-since claimed by new owners. No one wanted the ugly one. Howard moped, in between tripping over his giant paws, the likes of which he wondered if he would ever grow into. Finally, after fourteen weeks, a young girl picked him up and solved his problems with a gigantic hug. She took him home to her house in Wiggington-on-sea, in England’s far south. Sixteen-year-old Gail Moreton made Howard feel special and he returned her kindness with loyalty for three years. He wasn’t ugly anymore. Howard was strong and handsome. His trademark; slightly larger ear looked more like a character-by-design inclusion, rather than a mistake by his gene pool. The Moreton’s backyard suited his frivolous needs to perfection – until she became an air-hostess and Howard had to leave.

He hated the pound. It was in nearby Scoosbury, a much larger town and the conditions were cold, stark, noisy and miserable – the worst months of his short life. Uncaged for only one hour per day, the smart canine grasped one of these exercise-breaks as the opportunity to escape. He broke loose from his handler and scaled the wire-mesh fence to freedom. But where?

Instinct directed him back towards Wiggington-on-sea, where at least he had a memory of happiness. Drinking from streams and eating from rubbish bins and the odd generous hand-out, the journey took him just under a week. Collarless, Howard sat with a wagging tail beside the village green after having a good roll. He watched the traffic feeding its way through the narrow streets, in front of the rows of bay-windowed shops. He knew the large patch of grass well because this was the place that Gail would bring him on weekends. She was nowhere to be seen but he knew he would have to move on with life. The doggy days don’t stop rolling just because he’s alone. Howard trotted across the lush green couch to pause at the big white marks, on the big black hard stuff, which all those noisy bubbles with humans sitting inside them moved along. The big white marks had some magical power that made the noisy bubbles with humans inside come to a standstill; now he could move safely across the big black hard stuff. He didn’t know why – but it was the same every time. Gail had taught him good road etiquette.

He waited. A stroller pushed by a woman of forty, her toddler by her side, started things. The noisy bubbles came to rest and the dog headed off towards her. Moments later a man also in his forties joined the stroller’s group. Back in the 1970’s, everything moved slower. The cars were made of metal, not plastic. Fewer crowds. Less paint on the roads. Things seemed somehow much simpler. There were no mobile telephones. It wouldn’t be long before he would find a new owner. Howard was liked around here. He met them in the middle of the crossing. Tail wagging.

And then it happened…

A speeding car mounted the kerb, finding its way between the nine stationary vehicles without regard for the zebra-crossing’s pedestrians, of which, Howard was one. The dog froze in the oncoming lane as his path crossed with theirs. The father dashed to save his family, managing only to collect Howard. The dog’s life had been saved from certain death. The car beat him to his family. The man spun away with only Howard beside him. The car drove over the man’s foot before winding its way out of town. The driver was never stopped. Realizing what had just happened, Howard took off. He knew where Gail’s doctor’s surgery was and how to get there before anyone else.

The small crowd of panicking onlookers became quickly parted when Doctor Meredith appeared with his nurse. Sadly, the only thing he was able to do was to care for the man, whose name was Simon Stryker, by getting him safely to the hospital. This tragic moment of stupidity had cost Simon his entire family: Wife Stephanie, toddler-of-two Phillip, and pram-bound youngest Ursula. Howard never left his bedside. After several months his ankle gradually mended, albeit, with a significant permanent limp. But Simon Stryker’s heart was destroyed. His empty house no longer laughed each night. His back porch’s timber-decking became the place where Simon would sit to allow his heart to bleed. The friendship between Simon and Howard grew very strong – but nothing could replace his loss. It ate him away. The dog didn’t exactly know what a broken heart meant, however, he did know something had to be done. As the seasons stole their years away, the thankful, floppy-eared, brown with black bits, canine, changed Simon’s outlook. He walked further each day to build up his ankle. The dog would always keep Simon out for longer periods, noticing his master’s far-happier demeanour during the marathon evenings. These were the difficult hours for lonely Stryker, isolated by memories. Fighting when he already thought he was beaten. His house echoed at night…

When Howard turned eight, his master turned forty-six two weeks later. They had been together for four years, two months, five days and obviously a few hours. Simon had started working again as a milkman. Before, he had occupied an office job, this voluntary change gave him the exercise he required to return to the man he once was. Well, physically at least. Simon grew from strength to strength and knew he had Howard to thank for it. The downside for the dog was the fact that his personal time with his master had thinned-out somewhat, to a few shreds in the evenings and time on the weekends. The trade-off seemed well worth it. Simon had acquired a horse for weekend recreation. He had become quite friendly with a mother of one boy who rode from his shared paddock. The woman’s former husband-to-be had stood beside her at the altar. Only to turn at the moment of truth, then rush off to the arms of her sister. Her fatherless son is now six. Rides in the nearby forest suited Howard’s needs to within a millimetre of perfection. The lady seemed kind. Her name Sally had a nice sound to it. The pace was well within his grasp. The outdoors were his Gods.

By birthday ten, his chocolate blotches were beginning to have a dusty look about them and the spring which was in his step in limitless supply had lost a few of its coils. He never lost his reliability though. Always there when required. Howard lived for the weekends now, the two horses and their happy riders, beside them, a small pony being ridden by Sally’s son Julián, and Howard riding shotgun at the rear. The smells in the forest, to Howard, represented the morsels of a smorgasbord banquet to a hungry person. Life just couldn’t get any better…

That was until a year later when Sally acquired a female German-shepherd from the animal shelter. Howard visited whenever he was invited. When her first litter of six yielded one runt with a funny ear and an inquiring look in his eyes, Howard’s memories rushed back like diving gannets. At each visit, the puppy-numbers dwindled but Howard couldn’t count anyway, so it didn’t matter. At last, he did notice the last remaining puppy, which took a while to get selected. He knew the ropes. Life is a tough teacher but she’s rewarding – if you hang in there and listen.

Which brings us to the beginning of our story. Now in his twilight years, Howard’s favourite spot was without a doubt the sunny patch of the deck. At this time of year, if the shadow of the giant oak hadn’t stolen his warming platform, by the time the children crocodile their way past the front gate after school, it would be one of those enormous hour-things, before Simon came home. His pooch’s brain had reflected back while waiting, with not much other than his life to think about. I suppose, if you think about it, as humans, it is exactly the same for us. Memories are all we take. He dozed off… Awoken by the keys hitting the glass dish by the door. A sound he knew well. Howard’s tail thumped against the boards, as always. Now, to stretch and go get a pat. Tomorrow was horse-riding day. He wanted to fit in as many as he could get his paws on. Neither the dog nor his master thought either owed the other a single thing in life. They were a unified entity now. Each was grateful for the results. Sally would be coming over at eight in the morning sharp.

At the nearby derelict castle, the group had paused for refreshments. Simon had a surprise, he decided to kneel in front of Sally. Howard heard his master’s voice be joined by Sally’s in merriment and a hug. He saw her put a tiny yellow collar on her finger. It had a sparkle attached. A beautiful sunny day gave birth to warmth. He watched them kiss with the ancient, crumbling, grey stones as the backdrop. On the return trip, highly-involved Simon and Sally did not notice the wandering pony, belonging to Julián, taking the old route back to the village outskirts where his home was. The wooden bridge was not to be trusted under a laden animal’s weight. They now only used the new much-longer route to cross the small river. In moments, in a hail of Howard’s barks, the young boy had allowed his pony to climb the beaten old track which meanders onto the bridge. He scampered up the track to repel the pony. Creaks of distressed timber hit their ears. The bridge twisted helplessly. It was a four-metre-drop to the water. Clearly, the jutting rocks and swirling pools created by them were for observation purposes only. How could the boy have been so absent-minded? Sally screamed. Simon rode to the water’s edge, just beside the bridge pylon in time to witness the rotting structure give way.  Julián fell to the stream still in his saddle. Howard followed the pony until they broke the surface, leaving behind a huge splash. The current began to carry its three latest guests. Against the rocks, the mass of his pony crashed its rider uncontrollably, before coming to rest in a shallower section. He was still pinned to the stirrups semi-submerged and gasping. Cuts covered his body. The pony was kicking a losing battle with time. Stunned, Simon was lost for an answer. Howard paddled over to the boy and gave him something to grab hold of. He was one-half water-dog and used his powerful paddling motion to keep Julián’s head above water. The boy hugged him tightly. Howard coughed and spluttered. The heroic dog was taking in plenty of water but fought for the both of them. Simon dived straight in. After several moments fighting against the pony’s thrashing, the boy’s feet were pulled free, allowing the pony to find its way, very much worse for wear, to the bank. It staggered out and lay on its side coughing up water. Simon now had Sally’s son in his arms on their marriage-proposal day. He looked close to death. Wary to move an injured person, in this case there was no choice to be made, and so, Simon carefully carried the traumatized youth through the water to the grassed bank. Howard scrambled up the bank on the closer-to-town side and barked madly. Simon nodded, knowing what he meant by his actions. It was twenty minutes, if he ran fast, to get to Doctor Meredith’s surgery. Howard was gone without giving Simon a chance to think. It was the right move because neither Simon nor Sally wanted to leave the boy, in case… he didn’t make it. The sixteen-year-old dog ran like he was two. He was there in nineteen minutes. The return trip took twenty-seven. Doctor Clive Meredith drove. Howard’s only way of showing him where to go meant he had to run along in front of the car. When Howard reached the spot where the distressed couple lay alongside Julián’s pulverized body, he collapsed with exhaustion. He didn’t feel the pain of his ageing doggy bones as they began stage one, of the recovery process. Meredith was a medical man of far beyond his unsung small village role. He was one of only three others to choose from in Wiggington-on-sea. His remarkable skills, the very same ones which saved Simon’s foot from amputation, were utilized to stabilize the boy suffice to take him to hospital. The doctor’s hands worked feverishly to prepare the severely-injured boy for the trip in his car. The intense situation afoot was fully-occupying the human’s mindsets.

Moments before loading him in, nobody noticed the true hero slipping away. The gruelling run to town and back had been Howard’s last. As the loyal hound watched on, he had a fulfilling feeling in his ageing doggy bones. He had saved Julián’s life at the expiration of his own.

What Howard didn’t know was that the scrawny runt of the litter he’d sired had been claimed by Gail Moreton. After years of flying back and forth, she had returned and changed her job to become a receptionist in the village. Out of love for her first dog, she had called her new puppy, Howard. News in the small village soon travelled to her ears. Gail, Sally, Simon, Julián and Howard Jnr often visit his grave site right beside the newly-replaced bridge.

… A brass plaque on it simply reads: “Howard’s Bridge”