The high beams of two vehicles pushed a lonely tunnel of light through the black night of Banff National Park. With snow blowing from the top of the propane tanker in front of him, obliterating his view of the nearly deserted Trans-Canada Highway, Bernie Eastman felt as if he were driving his battered pickup truck in the vapour trail of a comet.
Leaving Calgary earlier in the day, he’d already passed through an early storm, a black wall of cloud that had, after devouring the Rockies, boiled from the mountains onto the prairies. It filled the valleys ahead of his truck, rolling and rumbling, erasing forests, peaks, and sky. Facing the dark void ahead, he’ d imagined driving off the edge of the world.
Just as quickly, the violent storm had skidded eastward, leaving clear skies behind. That meant cold, and cold it was. Since noon, the temperature had tumbled from 4 degrees Celsius to -6 and was still dropping.
The two vehicles now continued west, ferocious winds threatening to toss them off the highway. Eastman felt their frightening power deep in his forearms as he wrestled with the steering wheel. He sympathized with the other driver when he saw the tanker shift left and
then right. He could see his own headlights reflected in the tanker’s driver-side mirror.
In the dark of the cab, Eastman heard the voice of one of his two passengers. “Why are we following this guy?” the man asked. “Go around him and quit wasting time.”
“Hold yer fuckin’ horses,” said Eastman. “I don’t wanna miss our turnoff.”
As he spoke, the exit sign appeared out of the blowing snow. “Jesus Christ!” he yelled, cranking the steering wheel to the right, hard, hoping for the best. His blue crew cab fishtailed down the exit ramp and finally came to a jolting halt against a concrete guardrail, facing up the ramp, headlights still on, engine still running. Eastman let out his breath in a rush. He could see the Bow River, a menacing black ribbon, flowing only metres below the truck.
Eastman, a bearded bear of a man, still gripped the wheel in both hands, his meaty knuckles white. His two passengers sat in stunned silence. He heard their breathing, hard and fast. The passenger who’d snarled at him to pass muttered something in Spanish. Eastman couldn’t tell if he was praying or cursing.
After a moment, Eastman pulled his hands from the wheel, flexed them once to get the blood moving again, then pushed his well-worn cowboy hat back on his head. “Whew,” he said, breaking the silence. “That was a hell of a ride, eh, boys?”
Hearing no answer, Eastman reversed the pickup, steering it clear of the concrete barrier, and then simultaneously punched the gas pedal and turned the steering wheel, spinning the truck around until it faced the right direction. “Enough of this screwin’ around,” he said decisively. “We got work to do.”
Eastman looked in the rear-view mirror to see Charlie Clark staring back, eyes wide in his thin, angular face. The lights of the truck’s dash were reflected from the strips of duct tape that held Clark’s old down jacket together. “Charlie, grab the goddamn light,” he said, “and let’s see what we got out here tonight.” As he turned to watch the road ahead, he heard Clark rummaging through the litter at his feet for the hand-held spotlight, a million candles of light powered by the truck’s cigarette lighter. He felt the blast of cold air on his neck when Clark wound down the back window. He saw the forest to their left dance in sudden illumination, so he dimmed the headlights and slowed the truck to a crawl. The search had begun.
Eastman watched the front passenger out of the corner of his eye. The black-haired Hispanic was still and silent. He saw his gaze following the spotlight that probed the darkness. The man had spoken little since they’d picked him up at the Calgary airport that afternoon.
In their first phone conversation a month earlier, the man’s answers to Eastman’s questions had been curt, almost rude. But Eastman didn’t give a shit about manners. From that one call, he’d understood that the passenger was impatient, a man who thought highly of himself and little of others. In fact, no client had, in all the time he’d worked in the business, ever boasted about his IQ. So this was a man with a big ego and big money. For Eastman, who ran a business guiding and outfitting hunters, it was the money that mattered. If that kept flowing, he’d ignore the rest.
The passenger turned to stare at Eastman as though reading his thoughts. “Are you certain they’re out here?” he said, obviously edgy. “I am not paying to be disappointed.”
“Yeah,” Eastman replied, perhaps too quickly. “They’re here. I know what you want and I’ll get it for you.”
The passenger still stared at him, unblinking. His thick, black moustache paralleled the thin line of his mouth. Eastman felt the urge to drive his fist into the man’s arrogant nose. He imagined the crunch of bone, the rush of blood, the warm satisfaction he’d feel when tears came to those dark eyes, if only for a moment. But he also sensed that crossing the man would be good for a bullet in the back of the head, sometime when he least expected it. Eastman fixed his gaze on the road.
They drove for an hour, crawling along the road, peering into blackness illuminated only by the spotlight. A light wind blew snow from the trees. Eastman saw the flakes flashing toward the windshield like tracers, streaks of brilliant white, hypnotizing. To the side, the spotlight reached far out into an open meadow. Then, abrupt and fragmented, it shone against the islands of pine and trembling aspen lining the road.
Eastman held the wheel with his right hand, the fingers of his left impatiently tapping the window as if he were transmitting Morse code into the forest around them. Behind him, he could hear Clark’s nervous fidgeting. The beam bounced up and down, left and right, as if the road were filled with potholes or lined with speed bumps.
An hour later, Eastman, exhausted, glanced at the clock on the dash — 12:20 a.m. His tired eyes played tricks on him — shapes appearing and disappearing at the edge of the darkness. Despite the increasingly strident voice in his head urging him to call it a night, to abandon the search, he willed himself to keep going. He knew that his passenger expected to fly home late the next day with his objective met. And Eastman knew that by accepting the man’s money, he’d committed himself to succeeding. He felt the keen edge of pressure. He desperately needed the money, though, and knew that if he succeeded on this trip, the man would be hooked. He would come back for more. In that first phone call, Eastman had offered a unique guarantee, and there was no question the man would hold him to it, one way or another. And so he must do everything he could to make this work. Giving up was not an option.
“Well, son of a bitch,” he said with a sigh, his voice revealing his growing exhaustion. “We’ll keep goin’ a bit further and then we’ll double back.”
No sooner had he spoken than the spotlight picked up the glow of a pair of eyes at the far edge of a meadow. Eastman heard his passenger speak in a voice that was surprisingly calm.
“There,” the man said. “Stop the truck … now!”
From the height of the eyes above the snow-covered ground, Eastman knew the creature in the meadow was large, very large. In the darkness, he had no idea what it was. At this point, it no longer mattered.
“Keep the light on it,” the passenger said softly and menacingly to Clark. “Do not let me down.”
Eastman twisted left to see Clark grip the light as tightly as his two scrawny hands could muster. By the look in Clark’s eyes, Eastman could tell that his assistant understood the consequences of failure. They’d be unpleasant, if not painful.
Eastman brought the truck to a slow stop on the shoulder of the road. The passenger beside him jumped out of the truck quickly and quietly, then slid a long, canvas-wrapped package from behind the seat and pushed the door shut with a soft click.
In the darkness, Eastman watched the passenger lean across the hood of the truck. His left arm supported a high-calibre rifle, elbow down. His right eye peered through the crosshairs of a 10X scope pointing into the meadow. Eastman focused on the man’s right finger. It moved against the trigger, slowly yet firmly. The windshield exploded with sound and light.
At the far side of the meadow from the idling truck, the bullet found its target. Eastman turned his head to see, in the circle of the spotlight, a massive bull elk first drop to its knees and then topple onto its side, a dark hole in its right shoulder. A cloud of white flew up from the snow-covered grass when the antlers — seven thick points on each side — hit the ground. The fleeting shadows of a quartet of startled cow elk galloped into the darkness, eyes wide and glinting, heads held high. They did not look back. Eastman saw the bull’s final exhalation drift upward in gauze-like steam that, for a moment, obscured his view of the thick band of the Milky Way. He smiled a tired smile. Mission accomplished.