This story is by P.J. Hack and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
That morning we found Ty’s body. He would have been there until spring, but two kids cutting through the trees saw the sleeve of his yellow jacket. They called ski patrol. I knew it was Tyson Beal before I even pulled him out of the pit next to the tree. It surprised me though. Ty should’ve known better. Maybe, I thought, Ty had just hit a run of bad luck, but then I cleared the snow off him. It was Ty’s face, but all wrong; half of his skull caved in and his black hair matted with frozen blood. The first cop came in by snow mobile thirty minutes later.
“You knew him?” the cop asked.
The cop was a young guy, blond hair cut high and tight. He would have little regard for a guy of Ty’s vintage.
“We came up together and I’ve seen him in some tight spots.”
“Nothing as tight as this,” the cop said and I hated him.
An hour later we got lucky. Footage at the mid-mountain lodge showed a guy in a red jacket hassling Ty. He turned toward the camera for a moment and I knew his face. For weeks, he’d been pressuring Ty to sell water rights on Barrel Creek. Specifically, the 228 acre-feet that Ty’s family had held for two hundred years. Ty wasn’t selling and that meant the guy in the red jacket wasn’t building his high end homes.
I criss-crossed the mountain looking for him. The weather started sliding toward ugly at three o’clock. The wind was above 20 knots and the snow was falling, more like pelting, sideways. The cops called off the search when we closed the lifts. At 3:15, I spotted a guy in a bright red jacket, out of bounds and below the radio tower on Whistle Peak. Between the gusts, I watched him. He could move. I could see the evidence of long practice and good technique. He kept his skis on the snow and swung his leg from the hip in a smooth rhythm. I’d gotten lucky cutting him off, a trick of the terrain mostly, but now we were level with each other and running flat out. If I lost him here, he could disappear into the surrounding forest for weeks, maybe hide in an old cabin, maybe make it across the border into the States. I dropped my chin to my chest trying to kick into a quicker pace.
My right cheek was naked to the wind and it ached in the cold. I kept waiting to hear the buzz of a snow machine signaling the arrival of the cavalry. I reached across my chest to turn up the volume on my radio and I keyed the mike. “Anyone out there?” Dead silence. I tried again, barking the words above the wind. Nothing. When I’d first seen him he was directly below the antenna. No static, no call back. He must have done something to the antennae. Son of a bitch, I thought, I’m alone up here.
I pushed that fear out of my mind as another band of snow moved across the ridge. I peered through it. I saw him stopped on the ridgeline ahead of me. He looked to our right, over the cliffs. He seemed to be gauging the distance back to me and looking for a line of descent. The snow whirled and pulsed in the wild wind. I raced toward him and he turned away from me. The wind screamed in my ear as he disappeared over the edge.
Below me, the band of cliffs ran like a battlement below the ridge top. The light was starting to fade, but I saw him picking his way down a narrow couloir that broke through the cliffs. Another quarter mile west there was a larger break in the cliff band. Trees huddled tight together where the angle of descent softened. If I waited until he navigated the couloir, I could follow his line. I’d have good cover and not just from the wind. It would be tough for him to get a shot at me if he was armed, but I would lose any chance to cut him off. If I made for the trees, I might get lucky and cut him off, but that meant crossing an exposed slope. Day was fading fast and the storm threatened to swallow all the light that was left.
Better in the trees I thought, at least I’ll have a chance to catch him. I launched over the edge, my skis flying free of the lip and then coming back to earth. I cut across the slope in a single sweeping turn running as fast as I could. I risked a glance down the chute as I shot by the gap. He was still in there, nearer the bottom now. I was hoping he hadn’t seen me.
Then I was under the shadow of the evergreens. In a single, unbroken line I skied the first hundred meters through the clutch of douglas fir. Then I pushed into a left hand turn and drove deeper into the cover of the forest. I shifted my wait to turn again and a tiny vibration shook through the edge of my right ski. It must have clipped a fallen tree hidden in the snow. My right ski skittered into the left and they crossed. I knew what was next and felt myself shoot forward directly toward the trunk of a tree.
I was floating inside of a choking fog, totally disoriented. Then it came to me: I was trapped in a tree well. I tried to calm my mind and cupped my hands in front of my face to create a small air pocket. I took a breath. I knew what to do, but also knew how poor my chances were. Tree wells are common in the Canadian Rockies. The low branches of an evergreen tree can keep snow from compacting and this forms a void around the base of the tree with a thin shell of snow over top. The “wells” can be ten feet deep or more and they are often deadly.
The snow around me was an unconsolidated mass, so light and dry it was like smoke. In the first moments, I was so disoriented I didn’t know whether I was right side up or upside down. Then I felt a line of saliva running across my forehead. I was pitched over, more on my side than upside down. Panic took me and I thrashed against the snow. My body spun and I would have been lost except my forearm slammed against the tree. I clung to it.
I shimmied upwards using the trunk and my head broke through the snow into clear air. I took a desperate full breath. I made one more move upward and held myself against the tree. My head and torso were clear of the snow, and my legs were mostly free above the knee. The toe of my boots pushed into the rough bark of the tree. I held myself up by using my arms and legs to oppose each other so that I was coiled like a spring.
I wanted to throw myself backwards and try to scramble out. Then I heard the scratch and slide of skis moving across the snow. A different kind of fear grabbed at my heart. I froze, worried that moving would reveal my presence. I waited, barely breathing, hoping he was passing along the slope below and not coming closer. Soon there could be no doubt. He was working his way toward me
I heard him laugh a little. “Those tree wells are a bitch aren’t they?” He chuckled again. “Wasn’t Ty always saying that? I can hear that pompous, self-righteous, ski guru. The master of the mountains! Couldn’t change though, couldn’t come along with the times. What an ass. ” I looked over my shoulder again. He stood right at the edge of the treewell. His jacket was open as he drew a weapon. My eye caught sight of a huge belt buckle, a silver oval as big as two fists, right at his middle.
I pulled myself tighter against the tree, coiling the spring. Before he could point the weapon at me, I launched backward twisting in the air to dive directly at him. I heard the gun fire, but felt nothing. His eyes went wide as I grabbed ahold of the belt buckle and pulled him to me, but as I did the barrel of the gun fixed square against my chest. He was falling forward into me as I fell backward into the tree well. I pulled him in tighter, clasping my hands behind his back. The weapon fired again and the light disappeared as we tumbled into the loose snow.