Saturday, October 11, 2014

Critter of the Night.


A Writeon work

It being the Halloween season, which for some reason is a big deal in the USA, I thought it fits. Back before kids, I did a bit of backpacking. Maybe I'll do more when they're old enough.

It happened last fall, at dusk. I was camped at Cooch Gap shelter on the AT, one of my favorite places. I'd finished dinner and was savoring the dinner-flavored tea that I used to disguise taste of the human-sump when there was a bump on the side of the shelter. I looked up and saw another hiker. He had the gaunt thin stringy look of the trough-hiker, complete with the scraggly beard and grimy worn clothes that distinguished the true hikers from amateurs.
He asked, “Mind if I share the shelter?”
I pointed inside, “The floor's free. My stuff's over there.”
“Thank you.” He took of his pack and set it in the shelter. Then he sat on the edge of the floor where he stretched his legs, and said, “Do you mind if we have a fire?”
“No.” I usually didn't have a fire when it was just me, but when there was company a fire was welcome. There is nothing like swapping stories over the flickering flames of a fire. Besides the smoke tended to cover the 'eau de backpacker' that we both smelled from each other. I said, “I'm about done, why don't you cook up while I gather some wood?”
He gave me a rangy smile, it was clear he hadn't been to a dentist recently, and said “Sure.”
By the time I returned with wood, he had set up his alcohol stove and started boiling water. He was watching for me the way a deer watches the woods in November; ready to bolt at the slightest untoward sign. He said, “Damn, I'm glad it's you.”
“Who else would it be?”
He took a swig on his fuel bottle, and saw my disbelief, “I always use everclear. Safer than denatured.”
I started the fire while he ate. Then we talked. He started, “She's coming for me you know, tonight.”
“Who?”
“You'll see, though I hope you don't. It's been a year.”
“What happened?”
He scanned the woods, there was nothing either of us could see in the clearing around the shelter. “It was a good deed gone bad.”
“A good deed gone bad?”
“You know these hills were full of people?”
“Before the blight.”
“I was at the Laurel Mountain shelter, near one of their graveyards. There was this woman. Beautiful young woman, long black hair, a white dress, blue from the cold.”
“A day-hiker with hypothermia?”
“So it seemed. I put her in my sleeping bag with a warm bottle. She was cold as ice, past shaking.”
“Did it work?”
“She warmed up. It was a cold night, so I ended up sharing the bag with her.”
“Sounds like you were lucky.”
He pointed to a scar on his neck. “I wasn't. She said she'd be back in a year.”
“A year ago?”
“Yes.”
We talked a bit more, let the fire burn down, then turned in. He was gone in the morning. A woman's lace handkerchief lay on my bag.