The Atlantean Bangle
Chapter 3: Unexpected Hunting Trip
New England, USA
Much to his disappointment, Max no longer camped and hunted as frequently as he once did. The comfort of a warm bed and heated home afforded to him by his academic career reduced sojourns into the wilderness to infrequent indulgences instead of desperate necessity. As he sprinted through the vibrant colors of a New England autumn, he could saw with some surprise that Elsa was easily keeping pace with him. Looking behind him, he scanned for signs of his pursuers.
"Think we lost them?" he asked in a half-whispered tone.
"Not until we're dead. They'll make it look like a robbery gone awry or hunting mishap."
"The first one's believable enough after that scene they caused."
Max wondered about everyone in the diner, hoping they were alright. If the men hunting him were as bloodthirsty as they were relentless, he imagined they would not want to leave witnesses. He wondered for a moment if he had truly seen the last of them when a shotgun blast splintered the bark from a nearby tree. He cursed to himself and continued running deeper into the woods, following only the gentle, slopping gradient down towards the caves he hoped they could take refuge in.
The babble of a nearby brook provided an oddly soothing ambience for Max's mad dash deeper into the forest. While he vaguely knew where he was going, he realized if he could not take shelter in a cave, he was truly lost. He weighed firing his pistol over his shoulder, but the sobering probability of him hitting a distant pursuer was greatly outweighed by the chances of his enemies simply adjusting their aim.
As Max ran, fatigue and the effects of a thousand smaller wounds combined to take their toll. No longer in his prime, his capacity to endure attrition had not been what it once was. Small cuts along his skin from brush, splinters, and perhaps errant shotgun pellets was slowing him down behind Elsa. The German woman ceased her own sprint to pull him along. Ahead of him, he saw the mouth of a cave in the side of a rocky hill. He welcomed Elsa's assistance moving towards it at first, just as he saw the two armed men emerge from the brush behind him.
Ahead of him, Max saw Roger pointing towards the cave entrance. As he ran, he wondered if he truly was losing his own tenuous grasp on reality. Seeing his son awakened long dormant urges in him as a burst of adrenaline allowed him to cover the distance to the cave entrance. The yawning portal to the underworld beckoned to him, as though Hades had personally invited him to his stygian realm. Behind him, he heard more gunshots, but felt nothing as he grabbed Elsa's hand and ran.
While the stale air of the cave was an unwelcome change from the crisp autumnal woods, Max appreciated the cover provided by the incalculable stones and stalagmites within. Barely illuminated by the insufficient light from the entrance, his eyes adjusted to the darkness as he pressed deeper into the cave. He heard sounds of shifting dirt and footsteps reverberating against the stone floor. At first, he thought the gunmen had pursued them into the cave, but he saw no figures blackening the entrance with their presence. He wondered if they anticipated an ambush within.
Max felt Elsa tugging on his shoulder as she halted him from moving deeper in the cave. He resisted her at first, but then looked down to see the very good reason for her halting further egress to into the terminal cavern. The fetid scent of carrion around him turned his attention to the scattered animal bones strewn across the ground. Two small furry forms curled in the corner of the passage, with a larger hirsute form behind them. Two beady eyes began to open as Max realized he was staring at a stirring mother bear. He grabbed Elsa and ran back towards the entrance.
Max saw the two gunmen waiting behind a fallen log with their weapons pointed at the muzzle of the cave. Behind him, he heard something large, angry, and growling coming for him. Weighing death by bears or bullets, he made his decision and pulled out his pistol. Elsa copied his movements, simultaneously arriving at the same idea. He fired his pistol into the cave ceiling, causing the ursine footfalls behind them to increase in cadence.
Simultaneously, Max led Elsa outside as he fired towards the gunmen, forcing them to take cover. Elsa sprinted beside him, providing cover fire with her few bullets as they haphazardly rushed onwards towards the enemy. Seeing one of the gunman's trigger fingers subtly shifting, Max thrust himself to the ground with long atrophied reflexes, ending up a prone position. It was much to his surprise as his target's that he saw the gunman drop his weapon to nurse his wounded hand.
The growling behind Max reminded him of why he needed to keep moving. The remaining gunman fired towards the bear, drawing its ire with a dozen superficial wounds. Max followed Elsa into the brush. Behind him, the panicked screaming of the would-be assassin and a final frantic gunshot echoed through the bare trunks of the autumnal woods. He did not need to hear the bear sating itself on its fallen foe to realize what had occurred.
"Now that's a hunting accident," Max said. "Let's scram before we're dessert."
Max looked at his watch and then in the sky to estimate the position of the sun to remind himself of the cardinal directions. Recalling the road was to the northwest, he led Elsa there with a brisk jogging pace. After the mad dash for survival just minutes earlier, he found it to be absolutely refreshing. He kept his now-emptied pistol in his coat, but hoped he would not have to draw it. From the way Elsa handed her sidearm, she had also expended her ammunition.
Next time, Max reminded himself, he would bring more than a pistol. He reminisced about his kukri, and all the memorable times he had with it. He recalled that it was gathering dust in his attic, with many of the other relics of his adventurous youth. As he spotted the asphalt ribbon through the brush, he wistfully remembered his first trip to Nepal. He was curious to see what had transpired in his absence, so he had already came up with a dozen formal excuses for his sudden absence from Milne University.
As he walked towards the road, Max halted upon seeing a familiar car parked on the side. It was the apple-red Roadmaster that had dropped off Elsa, with the familiar lanky figure without. While he immediately slowed down out of instinctual caution, Elsa ran towards it like an Olympic sprinter. Max thought he saw Roger standing back in the brush with him, so he hung back. The driver stepped out and gestured to the Professor to emerge from the woods. Cursing his attempt at stealth had been foiled, he emerged with his hands up, half-expecting to be shot.
The lean man pulled out a revolver and pointed it off into the woods. He fired twice, and Max saw a previously unseen figure jerk back as a pistol fell from his hands. A final shot to the head dropped the man like a bag of garbage, and Max immediately identified the dead man on the ground. The man he had previously wounded had a pistol in his good hand and would have shot him if he had taken a step further or Elsa had run a bit slower. He cautiously walked towards the car with his hands up, even after his benefactor had holstered his revolver.
"Climb in, Max," Elsa said as she gestured towards the backseat. "It is best we leave before the police arrive."
In no mood to protest, Max climbed in. "Where are you going?"
"Out of here," the driver said as he pulled away. "Are okay, Professor Burrow?"
"What do you think? Who are you two?"
"We've met before, Professor, and I'd have hoped you recognized me," the man said with a sigh. "Although we only met in person under tragic circumstances."
"My full name is Elsa Schofield, and this is my husband, Sam," Elsa said. "We both have PhDs in archaeology, although our specialty is non-destructive field investigation."
"The exact opposite of what I used to do, but now I recall your papers," Max said. "And Sam, I wish I had made the connection between you and the author's name."
Max recalled where he had met Sam in person before. He remembered the closed casket funeral for Roger, where his wife Catherine was hysterical, and Sam stood silently in the back. He even remembered shaking hands once. He immediately felt relaxed, like he was among long lost friends. He recalled even exchanging correspondence, but never bothered to attach names and faces together. Whatever was going on, he wanted to know more.
"Don't be too hard on yourself, Professor. You and Roger inspired me to become who I am today," Sam said. "After the war, I met Elsa and went to college. She's good at finding things, since she hid banned books and art from the Nazis during the war."
"Why didn't you both meet me in person? Especially if armed men are after you."
"I was doing patrols up and down the road while Elsa talked with you in what we thought was a safe public place, but the bastards must've slipped in when I wasn't watching."
"Look, thanks for saving my life, but until you tell me what's going on with this bauble, Nepal, and the mad gunmen, I am not going anywhere."
"You're already in the car with us, Professor," Elsa said. "So they'll be after you soon enough."
"Elsa, calm down. How about we enlighten him?" Sam said. "Make yourself comfortable, since this is going to be a long story."
Max exhaled and forced himself to relax in the backseat.