How We Survived – Iron Sights (Nano 2016, Chapter 4)

Patton picked at the small pieces of ice that were beginning to form on his moustache as he stood above the ice breaking prow of the canal boat. The canal listed slightly from left to right as Lawrence moved his massive body along the length of the boat. Lawrence pushed his sleeves up slightly to keep his cigarette away from the fur around the cuffs of his coat. He leaned down to Patton offering him a very large cigarette from a gold case, which Patton gladly took. Any time spent near a flame, or even an ember was very welcome on the ice breakers. Long distance cargo boats rarely had many creature comforts.

“Do you know how impossible it’s going to be to find him?” said Lawrence aimlessly, as if speaking to no one in particular.

Patton lit the cigarette and looked up at Lawrence’s face. Lawrence stared out over the Siberian planes and exhaled slowly, his gargantuan chest rising and falling as he smoked. He was totally at home with the snow silently falling on his shoulders, while keeping a sharp eye out for arctic foxes and bears.

“It couldn’t possibly be as hard as you think” said Patton, struggling a little with the cigar sized cigarette.

“I haven’t seen him in years but…” he trailed off and Lawrence tilted his head down as if he was waiting for the rest of the sentence. When no sentence arrived he straightened up and resumed his chosen position as watchman. He watched carefully over the placid snow and ice for any imperceptible twitches or movements. Most of the animals near the canals had learned to remain still when one of the boats passed by; fresh meat and bear pelts were big prizes on the extended trips between cities.

Patton tried to shake the cold air out of his lungs as he threw the cigarette stub over the side. He walked carefully over the snow flecked deck, between the covered sacks and boxes, trying to make his way to the rear cabin. There was a battery of cooling fans and diffusers underneath the rear cabin but it was always busy and standing inside for too long made you a nuisance to the crew. Patton left his coat on the hook outside and stepped in to the blasting heat.

Dozens of little dials, indicator lights, displays and switches were being monitored by the captain and a rotation of engineers. The engineers were ascending and descending a small staircase after viewing the dials for only a few seconds; they made small adjustments, ran back down, and then back up to view the dials again. They chatted to the captain in a mixture of Russian and English and he made the necessary adjustments. His hands moved quickly, like a typist or a tailor, but his medium wasn’t cloth or words: it was core temperatures and kilowatt-hours. All of the captain’s concentration was wrapped up in the task at hand – there was a very small window of productive power, especially in these temperatures. Incorrect operation could cause any number of catastrophic failures too terrible to even consider. Canal boat captains didn’t live long lives. Tube displays hummed and clicked and the thin engineers bolted up and down to the stairs making micro-adjustments to the reactors and the cooling system. Patton wondered why there weren’t just dials down in the power room until he realized that he was getting in the way. The engineers were taking time away from their work to shoot him glances. Patton went back outside and hurried himself into his coat. A huge bang rang out from behind him and he almost jumped over the side of boat.

Lawrence steadied his enormous rifle and widened his stance. He exhaled slowly in an attempt to take the cold shake out of his fingers. The deer was running quickly to the right, hemmed in by sharp rocks and trees. It had no way to run further away from the canal; all it could do was try to run ahead of it. Lawrence held firm, led his target and fired. The whole boat rocked with the recoil as the gun kicked and he was forced to take a step back. Lawrence was ten feet and one inch tall and he was unaccustomed to taking a step back. He righted himself quickly and scanned area for his target. The deer was gone. The tree that had been hit by the bullet creaked and groaned. It splintered as it fell and threw a small cloud of snow towards the canal; as if it was mocking Lawrence.

Patton appeared beside Lawrence as he reloaded his rifle and set it back on the deck.

“Did you get him?” asked Patton.

“No. No fresh meat tonight, unless you think tree is a meat” Lawrence mumbled.

The two stood in silence again for a while listening to the hull crack the ice of the canal, and listening for the dull thud sounds that the clumps of ice made as they bounced down the sides of the boat. The snow had a muffling effect on the surrounding landscape, making only nearby sounds seem present. The world closed in when it snowed this heavily. All sound and vision was muted and stifled as they squinted to keep out the snowflakes out of their eyes. Lawrence produced a pair of goggles and pulled his hat down a little lower. Patton was content to turn his back to the soft wind and look back over the length of the boat.

Steaming water trickled out of the sides of the boat and back into the icy canal. The reactors needed a lot of cooling and the ice filled canal was perfect for the task. The hot water helped to keep the ice from freezing to the side of the boat which the engineers were eternally grateful for: they were not men accustomed to raising picks and hammers to chip ice. Lawrence could have helped them out immensely if it had been necessary but they distrusted giants. Patton had noticed the engineers using words like “oaf” and “menace” when Lawrence was out of earshot but he thought it best to keep that to himself. This journey was going to take days, or even weeks depending on the ice and it would be a bad idea to have the technicians fighting with the largest man on the boat.

Patton pulled a beaten old liquor flask out of his coat and swigged from it. He offered it to Lawrence.

“No thank you. I want my aim to be nice and steady in case I see another deer”

Before Patton tucked the flask back into his coat he studied the red enamel flag logo on it. It said C.C.C.P, and the enamel had small cracks running over its surface. He had found it in his father’s apartment in Leningrad six weeks ago. Patton had searched his father’s apartment from top to bottom over and over again looking for some clue or hint as to where he might have gone. The door to his father’s apartment was broken when Patton had arrived to spend the evening with him. The police had been very little help, and the few people in the dingy apartment building had heard nothing. Either because of their deafness or a disinterest in their neighbours – they knew nothing.

The flask had caught Patton’s eye several times during his search of the apartment. It kept drawing him back for some reason, like a canary being drawn to its own reflection. It was dingy, it was dented, the logo was cracked, and the leather wrapping was in tatters, but something about it kept drawing him in. Maybe his father had kept it because of his drinking problem, but Patton had never seen him use it. There was nothing in it when Patton got to it, and there may never have been. It might have been a relic from before the choke that meant a great deal to his father. It seemed like the kind of object that somebody voluntarily leaving their home of 30 years wouldn’t leave behind.

Patton and his father had been drifting apart over the last few years to the point that Patton didn’t feel he knew him at all anymore. Something about the flask had lodged in his brain and he had to take it with him. He’d kept it on him ever since he started this journey; it was like his compass.

“Cover your ears and step back” Lawrence whispered.

Patton bolted back out of the way and clamped his hands to his ears as Lawrence raised his massive rifle to his shoulder, and then shifted it carefully to line up the iron sights. He braced himself and while clamping his teeth together he pulled the trigger. A cloud of red spray shot up onto the rocks and Lawrence smiled to himself. He placed the rifle back down and grabbed his revolver. Patton watched him leap from the boat to the shore in one bound. The snow was three feet deep, but it hardly fazed Lawrence as he moved quickly towards the downed deer. He watched for any signs of life as he held his revolver ready, but there were none. Lawrence tucked his revolver away and dragged the deer back towards the slowly advancing boat. The engineers and the captain stared at the giant hauling the deer through as if it were a normal man pulling a rabbit behind him. They were glad of fresh meat, but they weren’t happy about having the giant aboard. The engineers resumed their duties after only seconds of watching.

Patton watched Lawrence throw the deer aboard, and then watched the giant leap aboard. Lawrence worked quickly to drain the deer of blood. After a lifetime of living off harsh and unforgiving land butchering was like second nature to him. There was easily 250 pounds of animal that everyone on the boat could eat for days on end, but he knew it was imperative that the butchering happen quickly and the meat be prepared for storage. There was nothing worse that wasted food to a man like Lawrence, a man who had gone without so many times.

Patton helped pack the meat with ice in boxes while Lawrence stood in front of the suspended carcass carefully selecting the best cuts. After the last of the meat was packed Lawrence threw the bones and organs as far away from the boat as he could manage. Patton was the only man aboard that hadn’t experienced a bear showing up on the boat, or in a village, in search of food in the middle of the night, and as his guide Lawrence intended to keep it that way.

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