'Why have all prison transports such lousy suspensions?' Jerry thought to himself, as the retro-fitted school bus bounced him around like a bucking bronco.
He knew the world looked at him as a third class entity or even fourth if there was such a thing. He was a three time loser: drugs, laziness, and greed. They made sure he stayed locked up. If anyone ever asked what he was in for he'd reply, "Stupidity." In prison, he was even more of a nobody than he'd been on the street. Any mystique he'd welded with the fools he called friends cut no mustard with the hard men behind bars. Life in prison was long stretches of boredom, punctuated with moments of outright fear. That's what prison was - fear.
Jerry's eyes still stung.
'Hold still,' the doctor had said, pinning his eyes wide open spraying that horrible smelling stuff all over them. 'This will make defects clearer on the scan.'
For months his eyesight had been failing. His vision had blurred and narrowed until things were just smudges of light and dark. As he looked through the grill on the bus window, he wondered if these snow covered fields were his last glimpse of the free world.
The trip to the eye specialist in Fargo had been a welcome break from daily grind of life in James River Correctional Facility. James River had one decrepit transport bus which just about ran. It seemed colder inside the thing than outside, if that were possible. As he shivered in his seat, the shackles on his wrists rattled and that was despite his black duffel coat over the prison jump suit. Fat Pauli was driving the bus and guarding him for the day. Fat was no understatement when it came to describing Pauli. He must be every ounce of two hundred and eighty pounds of bone idle blubber. No point in sending a second man, even knocked out cold, nobody was running anywhere dragging that great lump along behind them. The falling apart bus, and lack of guards reinforced Jerry's belief that he was less than worthless.
Fat Pauli fumed behind the wheel as they crawled along at four miles an hour, his massive bulk blocking the tiny farts of heat the air-con unit was puffing out. Whatever the hold-up was it didn't bother Jerry, he had years to kill. Pauli on the other hand was going to be late for his Friday night poker game. When they reached Casselton, his minder had had enough. He swung the creaking rust covered bus off the Interstate and onto the rutted back road.
"Hold on to your breeches, this is going to be bumpy" he yelled over his shoulder, as he ground up through the gears. They gathering speed and shimmied on down the line, with the road to themselves.
"I know every shortcut in the state," he yelled back at Jerry, sounding like a red neck tour guide.
"Don't go rushing on my account, Officer," he said, settling back like he was being chauffeur driven. He caught the angry crease in Pauli fat forehead and smiled to himself. The bus picked up pace, making the ride even more uncomfortable. The road narrowed and soon trees replaced open farm land, and then the road began to snake. Pauli’s fat foot was still planted firmly on the accelerator when a deer bounded out of a bush. It was only a reactionary flick of the wheel, but it was enough to send the rickety bus sliding full force into a massive pine tree. Like all the bad luck in his life, Jerry never saw it coming.
Cold air brought him round. He was sore but not the searing pain of broken bones or ripped flesh. His eyes took in what they could and he picked out the slumped figure of Pauli ahead of him, his jelly belly swallowing half the dash. He got his feet under him and moved to the front.
"Hay," he called but the guard didn't move. "Pauli, wake up man!" That was when he noticed the trickle of blood that ran from the man's cauliflower shaped ear.
"Aww shit man, what the fuck Jerry?" he said to himself. He didn't like Pauli but he didn't want him dead either. The cold rushing into the wrecked vehicle soon snapped him out of his stupor, he couldn't just stay here, he'd freeze to death. He was on a tiny back-road, miles from anywhere and in the middle of a blizzard. If he was getting out of this, he was getting himself out. Through the grill he could see the bunch of keys dangling from the guard’s belt. He reached his fingers through the metal lattice but they were way out of reach. He looked around and noticed a window near the back of the bus had popped open. He shuffled back and got his fingers around the edge then pulled for all he was worth. He shot back on his ass as the grill came off like a knife being pulled from a soft pound of butter, this thing was nothing but rust and paint.
He eased himself out the smashed window and sank up to his knees in the fresh snow. He waded forward and climbed into the cab, shaking Pauli by the shoulder, but he was gone.
"Looks like you took your last tour chief," he said to the dead man, as he unclipped the keys from his belt. Once he'd got the handcuffs off, he pulled off Pauli’s winter coat and snow boots, they were no use to him now. He found the guards wallet but left the gun holstered on his belt. It was one thing to be on the run, but thing to be on the run and armed. That was sure to get you shot first, questioned later. Time to move.
All night he ploughed through the woods of Fort Ranson State Park, the trees blocking the worst of the winter wind. Even double coated and booted, he was frozen to the core when fresh snow began to fall.
"Just keep moving," he said to himself, but his body desperately needed to stop. His limbs were numb and he was dog tired.
"You stop, you die," he told himself again and again, through trembling lips. At least the falling snow covered all signs of his passing, not that his blind eyes could tell.
Morning came, and with it the first helicopter. Twice he had to bury himself deep in snowdrifts, covering himself completely to hide from the thermal cameras. Eventually they moved off and he trudged on. The woodland gave way as he rose higher into the mountain. Scrub covered by deep snow made the going hard. "Shit! Fuck! Bastard!" he exclaimed each time his numb leg vanished under him, threatening to break a bone or twist an ankle until at last it happened.
"For fuck sake! Fuck!" he shouted, grabbing his shin. His fingers came away covered in bright red blood. His numb fingers played across a taut length of barbed wire, completely hidden under a bed of white innocence.
"Barbed wire means livestock, livestock means farmers and farmers mean farmhouses," he said, trying to see the best side to his injury. His deficient eyes scanned the vast expanse of white, squinting to help them focus. In the distance he had a notion of a darker area, more square than nature was fond of making, he headed for it. Now he moved slowly, testing each step for more hidden bobby traps.
The barn was long abandoned, or only used for high grazing in summer months. The door hung by one hinge and slammed in the wind. He slipped inside pulling the door shut. Inside was heaven after the hours of biting wind. Gaps in the timber let in silvers of winter light to illuminate dancing dust motes disturbed by his passing. In the gloom of the barn he was all but blind. He felt around and found a mound of dry brittle hay and threw himself into it exhaustedly. Sleep came in an instant.
It was fully dark when he woke, the growling of his stomach rousing him. It was two full days since his last bite of food and he was starving, but even worse than that was the thirst. He raised himself up on his elbow, hearing another low rumbling growl but this one came from his left, not his stomach. Wolf was all he could think. He eased himself away and backed along the side of the barn. His shoulders brushed some tools and he grabbed a handle and held whatever it was out to fend off the attack that was sure to come. The growl came again.
"Easy boy," he said, and felt the edge of the door at his back. He pushed it open and felt the bite of the storm outside. Inside were fangs and outside were claws. He was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Keeping the door open, he huddled out of the worst of the wind and waited for something to rip into him, but it never came.
Through the passing hours, the growls subsided, and an uneasy truce was called. In this tiny barn both beasts realised shelter would have to be fought for or shared. Sharing seemed to be the best choice. Dawn came sending golden light creeping into the barn. In the far corner Jerry could just make out glowing yellow eyes hovering in the darkness. As the light grew stronger, the wolf in the corner was transformed into a skinny mongrel with ribs showing under paper thin skin. Jerry lowered his shovel and said, "You scared the shit out of me boy." With the immediate treat lifted his thirst returned with a vengeance.
He found a rusted bean tin which he filled with snow and held it close to his body. As he waited for the snow to melt, the dog watched his every move. He searched the building for something edible and came up empty handed. "I may as well be on a fucking desert island," he mumbled to himself. He was soon getting sips of metallic tasting water from this can as he hunkered near the door. The dog's eyes locked on him.
"What lockup are you running from?" he asked the pup and as if knowing the question was for him, the dogs ears pricked up and he cocked his head to one side. This got Jerry laughing good and the dog settled back into is position, chin against the floor.
"We'd picked a hell of a barn to hide in," he said to the mutt. With that the dog began to whine.
"Oh come on! It's not that bad," he said to his new cell mate but soon the dog began to shiver and shake. Jerry edged closer, a step at a time. That was when he found out this little dog wasn't a dog at all, but a bitch, soon to be a mommy.
"Good Girl, it will be ok," he cooed at her but stayed out of snapping range. She eyed him with pain filled eyes, deep pools of hurt and mistrust. They said to him 'I got bigger fish to fry right now, you can stay but no touching -OK'. Jerry got the message loud and clear.
The morning hours passed as the mangy little dog shuddered through labour and into birth. Jerry found a dish and poured some water into it for her, shoving it towards her mussel with his toe. She cocked her head and lapped greedily at it, Jerry topped it up with his can as the hours ticked by. Three little puppies arrived, two flopped to the ground slimy and still. The little black dog nursed them with her long pink tongue, but her efforts were for nothing. Jerry couldn't help saying, "You're a great little mommy, you know that girl? It’s not your fault."
As the third little body entered the world, the little dog licked with vigour, cleaning the tiny pink nose and rubbing the black belly with her glistening snout. She licked and licked until the puppy let a weak cry. The dog's ears perked up and if a dog is capable of smiling, this one grinned from ear to ear.
"Would you get a load of that," he said, forgetting himself and reaching out to rub the little dogs head. As his palm touched the dog’s neck she went rigid, looking sideways at him, expecting the worst from a life time of abuse. They both stayed still for a long second before her long pink tongue flopped back out and she continued cleaning her new-born and allowed him to gently stroke her neck. When nobody else on earth could give a damn, she accepted him. That was when he noticed the blood. As the little dog pushed the lone pup towards painfully empty teats, he watched the pool of red spread.
"That don't look right girl, that don't look right at all," he said but what could he do about it. He watched as the little pup began to suckle, as its momma's head flopped to the floor. Jerry stroked the dog’s neck.
"You did so good," he said, and in the distance he heard the thump thump thump of a chopper searching for him. He looked into those innocent eyes and saw the wisdom of ages in there.
"No more pain for you and I'll take care of your little one," he said rubbing the dog’s neck one last time. He scooped up the tiny crying pup and laid it where the little dog could see it. Weakly her long pink tongue licked the tiny blind pup, and with three happy swishes of her tail, the light in those beautiful eyes faded and died. Wiping away the tears he pushed the little pup against the dog’s tummy, helping it to find a teat.
"Drink up little guy, it might be a while before we next get a meal." He sat beside the little dog, encouraging the pup to suckle until the last heat left her body. He found some old sacking and made a little pouch which he stuffed with straw for the new born pup and as light was fading out of the day it was time to move. He unzipped his coat and placed the pup against his chest where it could feel the beat of his heart. He trudged out into the night, heading back toward the road. This little guy hadn't much time left. He hadn't gone ten steps when a bull horn blared "Freeze, US Marshals. Put your hands in the air."
"Don't shoot," he yelled to the voice he couldn't see.
"Get your god-damn-hands in the air," replied the incensed man.
"OK. OK, don't fuckin shoot," he shouted realising that this was going to be the best outcome for his new little friend. This way he'd be back in custody but the pup would get a home. Jerry raised his left hand high but as he tried to pull his right free of the jacket the cloth wrapping the pup snagged on his sleeve. He felt the kick in his shoulder as he was flung back, but never heard the shots. Soon combat helmets and huge automatic weapons filled his vision.
"Get that god-damn-gun," a faceless voice commanded. Jerry sucked at the air but it wouldn't go in his lungs. He felt the blood bubble into his throat. A rough hand ripped open his jacket and grabbed the piece of sack cloth. The pup gave a cry.
"Jesus, it wasn't a gun it was a fucking puppy," the trooper said, pushing back his helmet showing a startled, but kind face. Jerry managed to wave the man closer and whispered, "Take care of that little guy, he's all I got."
He looked down and saw the tiny black puppy lick once at his knuckle before the sight finally fell from his eyes.