It also appeared that he was near the bottom of the mountain slope; the ground was reasonably level. He couldn't see by the light of the stars well enough to be sure, but it seemed the steep slopes were behind him. The chuckling of water in a creek came from somewhere ahead in the darkness.
His head snapped around to look behind him. He turned awkwardly on the rough bark until he could see uphill. Over the mountain came an intensely bright light and soon the chopping sound of rotors moving through the air identified the source of the illumination. The helicopter's path zigzagged erratically, but it was steadily working its way closer to him. When a ridgeline momentarily blocked most of the aircraft noise, Miles caught the distant barking of a number of dogs. The chase had caught up to him.
Jumping up, Miles hurriedly began jam the jacket and fleece mid-weight liner into the top compartment in the backpack. He turned to scan the mountain at his back. The loud yells were close enough to hear but that might be because of the otherwise silent night. The dogs were getting perceptibly closer--and fast.
Pepper was having a rough day. His lord and master had been displeased in today's training session because Pepper didn't immediately understand what he was supposed to do. He enjoyed a good game of fetch as much as any of the others in his pack, but his new master didn't play like his previous, young master had.
This one showed him things made of tree-stuff that were a little like flying animals, but these didn't smell right and wouldn't fly--not even when Pepper nudged them with his snout. Master threw them as far as he could and wanted Pepper to run fast and bring them back to him.
The dog saw no relationship between the birds he chased as a pup and these heavy lumps of tree-stuff. Pepper was badly confused. He didn't much like the new game.
Master clearly wasn't inclined to be reasonable either. When Pepper lay on his belly to bat the things with his paws and chew on the painted edges, Master yelled loudly and waved his upper paws at Pepper. Even when Pepper pulled his tail between his back legs and crawled to Master to show subservience, Master was still displeased. Even rolling over to expose his belly hadn't been enough. That had always pleased the little master.
Then there was the tiny, confining cave Master pushed him into. It was too small for the rawboned young hound and he was very uncomfortable. Finally, Pepper had been thoroughly frightened by the bouncing of the truck body as it drove over the rough road before being finally released.
Now Pepper had found the smell of a stranger and Master obviously wanted Pepper and his pack brothers to follow the scent. Pepper bounded along the trail, happy to have found a way to make Master love him again.
He was being held back though and he didn't understand why this was so. Turning around, he pulled back hard against the rope to hurry Master forward. Surprised when the collar slipped over his head, Pepper fell backward to abruptly sit on his haunches.
He bayed joyously and wheeled to race along the trace. The trail was obvious to a nose a thousand times more sensitive than a man's. He didn't hear Master yell for him to stop over the sound of the helicopter but it wouldn't have made any difference if he had. Pepper was on the hunt and he wasn't going to be denied this chance to atone for the rest of the day.
Miles stood, trying to decide what to do next. He could hear one or two dogs on his trail that were getting nearer, but most of them were still back in a big group of men yelling and cursing as they fought their way across the slope toward him.
There might be enough time to get to the creek he had heard lower down. Could dogs track people through water? He didn't think so ... but it didn't matter. It was the only idea he had. He grabbed the pack, horsed the straps over his shoulders, and prepared to run for the stream as best he could. He turned back when a dog bayed hoarsely close behind him.
The lead group was only one hound ... but that one was barely two hundred yards away and running hard toward him. He saw glimpses of the shadowy creature as it ran through open spaces in the forest cover.
Miles stopped trying to get the straps adjusted. He undid the hip belt and stared around wildly. There was nothing else near enough to be a danger except the dog. His only choice was to deal with the animal first and then try to get away. The helicopter drifted closer.
He dropped the pack to the ground and frantically snatched the hunting knife out of its sheath on his left side. He yanked the lightweight jacket from the compartment where he'd just stowed it and wrapped it around his left arm. Having put on the only armor he had, Miles braced himself against the log.
More afraid than he'd ever been before in his life, he tried to breathe deep to saturate his lungs with as much oxygen as he could. He held the knife's sharp edge upward and wrapped shaking fingers tightly around the handle. He dreaded what he was about to try and feared he wouldn't be able to bring it off. Desperate and cornered, he waited.
The dog came back into view between two young spruce trees a mere fifty yards away. He paused for a moment, not seeing Miles standing in the shadows. He ran on, following a scent so fresh he didn't need his nose close to the ground. Seconds later, he caught sight of Miles.
The dog stopped in a relatively clear space and howled his triumph. Miles winced as he saw flashlights on the mountain turn and begin moving in his direction. Pushing away his fear of the big animal, he advanced a few paces and held out his left arm to the dog.
Not trained as a police dog, Pepper didn't have any trained reflexes that would send him forward in attack. He was young though, and used to rough play with his pack mates. Excited as he was, he could be tempted.
Miles bent and picked up a handful of dirt and needles and flipped it at the dog that was hanging back for some reason. The spruce needles stung Pepper but he scarcely noticed. Obviously, he had found a master who wanted to play. Pepper pranced forward, happy to oblige.
Miles offered his left arm to the dog again. The animal sprang forward to grab the flapping thing in his jaws and set his legs to tug hard. It was his second-most favorite game.
Miles could feel the powerful jaws close about his arm, but the thickness of the parka and the jacket wound round his forearm kept the animal's teeth from penetrating to Miles' skin. Once the dog had a good hold on his arm, Miles pulled upward with his left arm. The animal's front legs came off the ground, exposing the hound's underbody.
Twisting his body to get his right hand as low as possible, he brought the heavy knife up from his ankles in a tight arc and drove the blade into the dog's vulnerable underside. Thrusting deep into the dog's body, he ripped the cutting edge upward with all his strength to do as much damage as he possibly could to the animal. The razor sharp steel sliced easily through the dog's gut with a wet, sucking sound.
From there, the knife's course continued upward through muscle and vital organs. It cut into the right lung and nicked a corner of the heart before being stopped by the breastbone. Bright red blood, black in the shadows, began to pump out in a heavy stream.
Miles wrenched his knife out of the ghastly wound. Shoving the mortally wounded animal away, he staggered back a couple of paces before he got control of his legs. He stared, sickened by what he'd just done.
The dog yelped his hurt and released the jacket when he felt the first pain in his lower body. It hadn't been that firm a grip anyway--he'd thought he was playing.
Confused by the agony, and already near death, the dog coughed blood and limped a few feet back into the tree line. He didn't notice he was stepping on the ropy coils of his own intestines as he collapsed near a sapling. He whined for a little while in confusion and torment, trying to get his head around to lick at the terrible gash in his belly. Presently, he died.
Miles remained hunched in the position he'd fallen into while he was gutting the young dog. He panted in exhaustion and fear, not sure at first whether the fight was over or not. He didn't know what he was going to do if the animal resumed its attack. He didn't think he could use the knife again.
When the dog stopped whimpering, he looked around at the mountain to his right. The flashlights and voices were nearer. The helicopter danced closer in the night sky. He couldn't see his right arm and the front of his clothing were covered with the animal's blood.
Suddenly he was blinded. A brilliant ring of light projected from above surrounded him. The chopper had gone ahead of the group of pursuers and found the scene unfolding below. Miles suppressed a reaction to look up. He was almost successful; his muscles were really too tired to react to the initial desire to look up anyway. He couldn't avoid all the light though. He squinted and shielded his eyes with a hand.
The impossibly loud, pounding beat of the rotor blades filled his ears. The heavy downdraft plucked at his clothing. His hair flew in all directions.
Blinking to clear the stars and galaxies swinging in improbable arcs behind his eyelids, Miles stumbled to his backpack and struggled to pull it on. Still trying to fasten the straps one-handed, he ran, carrying the bloody hunting knife naked in his other hand.
He turned to jog at an angle up the side of the mountain he had just descended, running at a right angle away from his pursuers. He hadn't run a hundred yards before his leg muscles began to fail, showing him a climb up the ridge was impossible. He had to find an easier way.
When the helicopter's engines roared and the aircraft suddenly leaped upward and away from him, the circle of light lost him. He took the opportunity to pivot on his right foot and dodge ninety degrees to his left without losing a step. With the change in course, he was quartering down the slope again and his momentum began to increase. A few minutes later, it was clear he was gaining some small separation from the searchers.
Behind him, the gaping hole in the dog's abdomen steamed in the cold night air.
"THERE HE IS, THERE HE IS!" The observer's shout was deafening over the intercom. The pilot didn't need the observer's pointing finger to see the man nailed in the center of the thirty-million candlepower beam. He worked the controls to stay as close to a hover as he could manage, fighting both the altitude and the wind building in strength from the southwest.
"We've got him!" he announced over the radio, switching to the agreed upon general net frequency. "Get someone up here. He's right under my light."
"We're coming!" The deputy who replied on his walkie-talkie was badly winded already. He saved his remaining breath for clambering up the mountain.
The observer saw the fugitive hoist a huge backpack to his shoulders and run southeast up toward the ridge crest. The poor maneuvering capability of the helicopter in the thin air made it difficult to keep the circle of light under control but the observer was experienced and able to manipulate it well enough to keep the runner in sight even when he fled into a heavy growth of trees.
The chopper drifted east, coming closer to the mountain down which the search party was stumbling. The observer was screaming on the general channel, trying to get everyone to change course and cut off the fugitive off as he climbed the slope away from them. His tirade was in vain.
The hunters were working their way through the forest more deliberately now that they knew the Underwood was close and nothing he could say was going to get them moving any faster. Stories of what a shotgun does to a man at close range had been circulating among them all evening.
A strong gust hit the chopper, driving it down and sideways toward the dark ridge. The pilot pushed the cyclic control hard over as fast as the rotors would take it and lifted on the collective while adding all the power he could to gain distance and height.
The pilot and observer both felt their chests tighten. Their faces turned ashen as the stony side of the mountain loomed close aboard on the right side. The observer ignored the spotlight he'd been controlling with a small joystick and watched the rock walls crawl ever closer past the sweating shape of the pilot frantically working the controls. The observer tried to help the aircraft rise by force of will, leaning hard left and straining against the harness holding him in his seat.
Slowly ... then with ever increasing speed, the chopper stopped its deadly progress to the northeast and reversed course. Both men resumed breathing only after the pilot regained control at a much higher altitude. Four hundred and fifty feet higher and two hundred yards further away from the nearest rock wall, the crew tried to get on with their job.
The pilot's desperate maneuvers had ruined the observer's view of their quarry below but neither commented on it. When the aircraft was comparatively stable again, the observer tried to regain the contact. He rotated the control to move the bright light in ever widening circles, trying to pick out the fugitive in the trees below. He found a number of law enforcement officers gesturing emphatically, and sometimes quite rudely, for him to turn the light away from them. There was no sign of a running man trying to get away from the illumination though.
"Go to FLIR," recommended the pilot. "You'll never find him in all those trees--limbs and leaves are giving him cover and we're too high." Neither man suggested they move lower. Seconds later, the Forward-Looking Infrared system was on line and the observer began watching for the big heat source he was sure would appear on his scope. The pilot pulled night vision goggles over his eyes. With the big light off, he could use them without being blinded. He resolved to keep a lot more altitude and separation in hand than he had before. Making a widow of his wife and an orphan of the new baby were not in his plans.
FLIR is an extraordinary device. It detects the slightest differences in heat of object compared to its surroundings and transforms the variations into recognizable pictures on a television-like screen. Highly sensitive, it sees the heat caused by the friction between a man's foot and the sand and interprets it as actual footprints across a sand dune. In the cold mountain air, the differences in heat given off by living animals, earth, and rocks are even more distinctive.
On the other hand, the device has a limited field of view. It must be pointed like a telescope at a target in order the heat signature to be interpreted and it doesn't have the greatest of ranges.
The observer in the helicopter's left seat tried to calm himself and work on a legitimate search pattern. He cursed under his breath, but he knew the pilot had saved both their lives. His curses were reserved for the gods of the winds, fugitives, and the night.
Below, heat generated by the friction of the fugitive's boots on the ground cooled rapidly but the heat, never very substantial, faded quickly into the background heat of decaying leaves on the ground beneath the trees. By the time the pilot regained control of his aircraft, what little temperature differential there was left on individual leaves dissolved completely as the strengthening breeze blew them around and rearranged them in random patterns. The chopper crew saw nothing that roused their interest.
Miles jogged away from the lights and noise as fast as he could. As the adrenalin brought on by the dog's attack leached out of his system, the weariness returned full strength. He was simply too tired to stay scared.
At first, he dodged quickly through the trees. Aided by the glare from the helicopter's wildly swinging searchlight, he moved faster than he could have in total darkness.
When the light went out, Miles slowed, grateful in spite of himself. His strength wasn't going to last much longer. Belatedly, he fumbled the knife back into its sheath.
Abruptly, the creek he had heard earlier was in front of him and he had to thrust out an arm and hook a sapling to keep from falling in. He collapsed to his knees and concentrated on dragging air into overworked lungs. He wasn't yet acclimated to the altitude. He was thousands of feet higher tonight than the altitude of his home in San Antonio. His chest felt like it was bound with molten iron straps. He tried to keep his back straight to let his lungs work better and give himself a chance to recover.
Miles thought he knew why the bright searchlight had been extinguished. He'd seen enough cop shows to suspect the search would go on now with the night scope devices that used a person's own body heat to track people. It was said criminals couldn't escape them. After all, how could a man stop radiating heat?
Suddenly it was too much. He couldn't outrun a helicopter, especially one with a pilot who could see in the dark. He dropped to a seat on the creek bank and stared into the water. He was too tired to even make his way out to the search party and surrender. He would sit and wait for the inevitable shout.
He'd be commanded to get on his stomach and spread his arms out to the sides. Then, a big officer would put his knee on Miles' back or on the back of his neck while he twisted Miles' arms behind him. The cold steel handcuffs would be snapped around his wrists and Miles would be marched off to a grimy prison cell.
A frown wrinkled his tired forehead.
A protest stirred.
He hadn't come all this way to give in meekly. There was only one thing left. He would find a good place to dig in and fight ... but he couldn't win. He knew that. Things were going to come to an end for him a lot sooner than he'd thought.
He rummaged in the backpack for a minute, unable to find the big revolver immediately. Frustrated by the lack of cooperation with the inanimate objects in his pack, Miles began to pull things out to find the weapon and ammunition. His hand touched a large folded plastic sheet and he pulled it free to get at the hard lump he could feel beneath.
He stopped, freezing into immobility as he sat with the plastic sheet in his lap. He knew what he held was important but he was too tired to figure out why.
He had grabbed one of the two heavy-duty survival blankets in the pack. Larger and heavier in construction than the flimsy Mylar plastic sheets sold as solar blankets, these were made of a heavy grade insulated material that was reusable. One of his blankets had a bright orange outer cover, the other had a camouflage top side, but the inside of both was a silvery surface designed to conserve the body heat of the individual wearing the blanket. Either one could save the life of someone who had no other source of warmth. He tried to think it through.
The survival blanket reflected body heat back to the individual wrapped inside it. He couldn't remember how much was returned to the survivor, but it was a lot. If the blanket kept heat inside instead of letting it spread out it in all directions ... what? What did that mean? Frustrated, he went over it until his exhausted mind stumbled on the answer.
The blanket kept heat in ... it didn't allow heat through ... it could be used as a shield from the infrared system on board the helicopter. Or could it? Maybe ... it just might.... He was energized with sudden hope.
"Shit!" Miles started at the sound of his own voice. He looked around to see if anyone was there to hear. There would be some heat loss ... he tried to think through the problem quickly ... of course there would be. Nothing was a hundred percent effective. If he laid flat on the ground and covered himself with the blanket, hot spots would develop at the edges.