A brown, dried, dead leaf from a now-barren live oak tree scraped across the parking lot pavement, pushed by the blustery January winds which were driving the temperature lower than predicted. Broken styrofoam cups, torn sheets of scrap paper, plastic shopping bags, and many other items, most of which were unidentifiable, also tumbled and bounced in many directions, involuntarily moved by the force of the bitterly cold wind. Thunderstorms had been predicted for the afternoon, but the storm system moving in from the north had changed course overnight and moved on a more easterly path, so the energy source was gone. Now, there was only cold air driving south, a “Canadian clipper” was enveloping the northern plains as it created lake-effect snows for the people living along the Great Lakes. Further south, however, the cold was spreading across a dry landscape: no snow, just frigid temperatures. The next few days would be unpleasant, but at least the one-to-two feet of snow would stay north and east of this tiny village in northeast Arkansas.
As Garrett stepped out onto the porch of his weather-worn cabin some ten miles from town, he was met with a blast of wicked wind that forced him to move his left foot backward so that he wouldn’t be knocked off balance. “Hmm, guess winter’s back for a visit,” he snarled as he reached a gnarled hand, swollen and scarred from the rugged life of a trapper, to his cracked and blistered lips where it then gripped a rather long and rough piece of wood that he was using for a toothpick, although the teeth that he did still possess were chipped and spotted with the black signs of decay. It wasn’t that he enjoyed the periodic tooth pain, but living alone in the backwoods made visiting a doctor, much less a dentist, a difficult task. He had more than once taken the treatment into his own hands and simply yanked out the offending tooth, preceded by a healthy ingestion of white lightning and followed by more of the same, some of which rinsed away the blood. Living so far away from his neighbors and being the last of a dying breed, there was no one around for him to impress, so his smile was not important, so long as he had enough teeth to chew meat and balance his pipe.
He stood at the edge of the porch, one hand working his homemade dental cleaner while the other gripped the post that supported the porch overhang. His eyes searched the horizon for signs of what to expect from the coming weather. The thin, light-colored clouds were riding high and speeding across the sky, a good sign that neither rain nor snow was eminent. “A little cold air ain’t gonna keep me from running my traps today,” he spoke aloud in his gravely voice as he pulled the stick from his mouth and flung it to the ground. His hand immediately moved to his pants leg to wipe it clean, an impossibility given the condition of his pants. Dirt, grease, food, hound dog slobber, and who-knows-what-else covered most every inch of his pants. His shirt wasn’t much better; part of his breakfast was splashed down one side and food from other meals was evident on the other side.
” Better get Jake and head for the creek. Those traps ain’t gonna check theyselves,” he muttered as he turned back to the cabin door. As he did, he stopped in his tracks at the sound that he heard coming from the distance, a screaming, squealing sound that he had heard before. once while coming back late one night from checking traps. That night he’d not seen anything, just heard that sound, but it had sent the same shiver up his back that it did this time. Garrett turned his head toward the sound and stared for a few minutes, hoping to catch a glimpse of whatever was making the noise. Nothing appeared, and the sound didn’t repeat. He turned back to the door, opened it, and stepped back into the warmth of his cabin.
Less than hour later, Garrett, trailed by Jake, his slobbering best friend hound dog, began making his rounds through the thick woods next to which he had built his cabin. Jake was a loyal companion for a man who rarely made contact with other people, an event that only occurred when he hauled his bounty of animal pelts into the nearest town. Garrett was a throwback to the 1800’s when fur trappers lived alone, only surfacing among civilized society once a year to sell their furs. That was also his only opportunity to overindulge his love of whiskey and his lust for women, usually spending a week at Madam Juliet’s establishment, enough debauchery to hold him until the next visit. Jake made the trip too, but he usually found himself sleeping in the back of his master’s old pickup truck until it was time to go home.
Trapping was good, probably because he was the only one taking skins from the animals in his neck of the woods. For some reason, no one else had discovered his “gold mine,” and Garrett wasn’t about to invite anyone to join him. He didn’t care much for people, although he wouldn’t have turned down the company of a woman, so long as he didn’t have to get married and have a bunch of screaming brats running around the cabin. However, a woman wasn’t likely to want to live so removed from other humans, so he’d given up all hope of that happening.
By late afternoon, Jake had wandered off, following one of the many scents that he had picked up during their meandering. “Jake!” hollered Garrett as he finished skinning the animal from his last trap of the day. There was no sound, so Garrett called again. There was no sound again, so he proceeded to wash his hands in the cold creek water and tie the pelt to the pole that he used to carry his bounty for the day. Just as he finished, collected his tools, and slung the pole over his shoulder for the trip back to the cabin, he was startled by a terrible sound not too far in the distance.
” Jake!” he yelled aloud dropping the pole and his skinning tools. Garrett picked up his rifle and hurried off in the direction of the sound. He ran, dodging trees and brush while trying to concentrate on the direction from which the sound had appeared to come. Once again the screeching sounded, not far ahead of him. A life and death struggle was taking place out there, that much was clear. Garrett feared that Jake was one of the animals.
Suddenly the sound stopped. Garrett stopped running, cocked his rifle, and raised it in the direction from which that familiar, horrible, screaming, squealing sound now emanated. It was the same sound that he had heard only a few hours earlier, but now it was not far ahead of him. He wasn’t afraid of much, but that sound made him want to turn around and run in the other direction. “I can’t do that. Jake’s out there, probably hurt. I gotta do this,” said Garrett as he summoned his courage and strength and then moved forward in the direction of the terrifying sound. Slowly he made his way to a break in the trees. As he crept forward to a position behind several fallen trees, he could hear an animal grunting not far away. Garrett sucked in his breath, swallowed hard, and slowly raised his head to take a peek.
There, not fifty feet from him was what he first thought was a grizzly bear, bent over another animal, tearing its flesh and eating it. As he watched silently, the creature stopped, raised its head, and sniffed the air. When it did, Garrett realized that this wasn’t a bear at all. It was a, well it looked sort of like a man, but it wasn’t a man. He hardly breathed until the animal returned to its meal. “Jake, you finally stuck your nose in a hole that you couldn’t pull it out of,” he cried to himself. Jake had been his best friend for nearly three years, and he wanted to stand up and kill the beast, whatever it was. Something in his soul kept him from doing just that. “I cain’t do it,” he mumbled, aloud as it turned out, because the beast stopped eating and turned toward him. Garrett couldn’t tell if the creature could see him or smell him, but in his gut, he knew this was the moment of truth.
As he watched from cover, the beast stood up, showing himself to be almost human, covered with hair and displaying the physical attributes that any man would have standing there naked. He was at least seven foot tall, and his features were exaggerated by his size. Just then the wind direction changed, filling Garrett’s nostrils with his raw odor, something more horrible than the sound that he made. “I ain’t gonna die hiding in the bushes,” Garrett spoke aloud as he gathered his courage and slowly stood, his rifle raised to defend himself.
In complete silence, the two animals stared at each other for what must have been five minutes before the creature snorted, turned, and walked quickly away, disappearing into the woods on the other side of the clearing. Garrett, quivering from the encounter, lowered his rifle, bent down on his haunches, and cried softly, both out of sadness at the loss of his best friend and out of relief that he was still alive. No one would ever believe what had just happened, and Garrett knew that he would never tell anyone anyway. It would only bring hordes of ignorant men into his territory, trying to hunt down and kill whatever this creature was, just for the sake of doing it. The beast belonged to nature, and he had more respect for nature than that. This was a secret that he would share with no one. It was a memory just for him.
As he kneeled, deeply affected by the grief that now overwhelmed him, Garrett suddenly felt found himself knocked flat on the ground. Fear gripped his heart, replacing the grief of the moment. He instinctively reached for the knife at his side while he simultaneously rolled over to confront the attacker. Instead of facing the beast, Garrett came face to face with Jake. His slobbering best friend was standing over him, his tail wagging wildly. Without speaking, Garrett embraced him for several minutes. Jake, surprised at the show of affection, struggled until he finally escaped his master’s grip.
” Let’s go home buddy.”