(Today's story came on kind of late, as I was busy and I did not use a timer for this one. It was such a fun subject and I so enjoyed being in the scene as I wrote it, that time got away from me. I hope you enjoy a spooky short story about one of my favorite subjects. I admit that to get it under the wire for today, I didn't do any editing, but a cursory glance seemed okay.)
The two couples enjoyed the outdoors and regularly went camping, but Jake had to admit, this was quite a different camping trip than the usual. It was an extraordinarily long hike and he worried for Laura. She was still limping slightly from the ankle surgery six months ago. Like a trooper, she eagerly donned her hiking boots and never once complained. By the time they set their tent in the middle of the Oregon woods, he insisted she put her foot in the chilly stream and then prop it up. The men were making supper, he boasted.
“You’ve been here before?” Jake asked his friend.
Sam shrugged and looked around the dense forest. “Close. I think we were on the other side of that ridge we passed. It doesn’t matter. You can’t get further away from civilization. We must be 15 miles from anything.”
Jake could attest to that. It had taken them from early in the morning until nearly sunset to reach this spot. Several times he wanted to insist they stop and camp for Laura’s benefit but for her it was a goal. She wanted to feel normal again and had been working out hard to be able to keep up with everyone. Right now, her blonde head was bowed as she kicked her feet in the stream next to Sarah.
“It’s gonna get dark soon.” Sam told him. “I’ll get the tents up. You deal with the food.” He snorted.
Jake didn’t mind. He was a master at campfires and loved to grill, so it wasn’t a hassle. He did take the time to grab a couple beers and give them to the girls before he opened his own. The smell of cooking meat filled the air and his stomach rumbled. It was perfect timing. By the time the food was done, the tents were ready and the women were back to claim spots near the warmth. Before long, they’d all finished their meals and enjoyed an animated conversation about their kids in college.
It was his third run up the hillside to take a piss when Jake heard a twig snap. The murmuring voices of the group below and the faint glow of the fire showcased their vulnerability.
A heavy footfall made Jake turn instinctively and search the bushes around him and the trees further up the hillside. Another thud followed by another one alerted his instincts. Jake wasn’t about to be found by a bear with his cock in his hand. He zipped up his jeans and flicked on his flashlight, searching the mass of plant life around him. No more sounds, but there was a distinct odor like smelly old wet dog. He coughed and turned away, making a fast trek back down towards the camp. Halfway down, he heard the footfalls again. This time the bushes shook not 10 feet away.
Jake looked down at their unsuspecting campsite and back into the maze of plants. He was damned if he’d guide whatever was to the smell of their food and their flimsy nylon tents.
Looking around him, he chose to go to the right and up the ridge. The vegetation was tight. His breathing was coming in wispy foggy puffs and his flashlight was dancing off of shimmering green leaves all around him.
Something came towards Jake from the right, but he wasn’t about to look for it. He continued his determined rise up and over the lip of the knoll. Once he cleared the ridge, he was able to move at a jogging speed down an animal path towards the river. Jake’s heart was pounding, his thigh muscles burning as he raced along the river, flashlight bobbing off the surface. His feet splashed in the chilly water and he ducked down behind a boulder and waited. When he heard nothing, sensed nothing, he got up and worked his way back to the camp from the backside.
Once the girls were asleep, he turned to Sam as the man opened his last beer. “There was something up there watching the camp.”
“Seriously?” Sam nearly choked on his beer. “I don’t like bears.”
“Who does?” Jake told him.
“I have my 45.” Sam informed him.
“I have my 22.”
“Your 22? All that’ll do is piss him off.” He snorted. “So, that’s the mystery behind the wet boots, huh?”
“I didn’t want it to follow me back, so I headed towards the river. I figured it might lose my scent. I took the back way in and made sure nothing was following me.”
“Not a bad idea, actually.” Sam admitted. “You know, I’m surprised Laura bought your story about getting lost and stumbling into the river.”
Jake nodded in agreement. Laura would be really angry if she knew that he’d lied. She was a very upfront kind of person and hated games and subterfuge. Still, she needed a good night’s sleep and he was going to guarantee it. Tomorrow, he’d find some way to talk them into setting up somewhere else. Somewhere less vulnerable.
“We could stay up in shifts.” Sam offered with a loud belch.
“It might be a good idea.”
“I’ll take the first shift. I’ll be pissing for a few hours anyways.” Sam sighed. “Just bring me my backpack. It’s got my gun inside.”
Jake brought it to him and crawled into his tent. Laura was dead to the world beside him and felt so warm and toasty. He didn’t want to curl his cold body up against hers but it was tempting. He eased his way up against her warm backside and protectively put his arm around her.
Jake woke to silence. His nose and hand were icy cold. He sat up and tucked his hand into the sleeping bag with a shiver. There was no more firelight outside. He clicked on his flashlight and eased himself into his jacket and gloves and felt around for his spare hiking boots.
Outside everything was still. Sam was nowhere in sight. Jake felt a prickle of the sense of being watched. The hairs tickled on his neck and arms. He liked to think it was just the feeling of humid cold air hitting him, but he knew better. Pivoting to flash his light around, he saw no movement. Sam’s pack was gone. No doubt he’d gotten cold during the night when he nodded off and dragged his things into the tent making the assumption that since nothing had happened, nothing would. Good old Sam, he took everything as lazy as a hound dog.
Once he had the bonfire roaring again, Jake studied the periphery. The light was so large it nearly lit up 20 feet around them. He squinted eagerly into the bushes until he felt satisfied whatever it was had moved on when he guided it away from their site. Sitting back on the mossy ground and leaning against a fallen tree, he began to nod off. It was nearly dawn but the warmth from the fire and the quiet lulled him. It seemed like his head just fell back against the wood when a heavy footfall nearby shocked him to full awareness. Feeling around for his flashlight, he aimed it in the direction behind him and leaped to his feet.
He glanced over at Sam’s tent, weighing his options. He could get him up to cover him while he investigated. He could also go back to his tent and fish around for his own gun. A limb snapped up high, the echoing crack resounding through the air. Jake trembled as he studied the fallen limb not 20’ away. It was a young sapling broken a good 8 feet off the ground, it’s green sinewy insides still holding it together in its toppled posture.
The breeze carried the scent, a wet old sickly dog and something else, something gamey. He choked back a gag, his eyes watering from the stench. His fist clenched around the flashlight. Whatever snapped that tree surely saw the huge bonfire. Although he tied their foods up in a bag high in the trees overhead, it could probably smell the lingering stale smell of beer. There was no choice but to go for a weapon.
It was then that Jake’s decision was made for him. A rock thudded into the tree beside him and made him leap and nearly stumble into the fire. Angrily he rushed forward towards the snapped tree and stopped short. It dawned on him then that bears did not throw rocks. Could it be Sam playing a prank? No, his friend wasn’t the practical joker type and especially when guns were involved.
The sound of heavy breathing brought Jake back from his frozen position beside the tree. He was the only thing between it and the tents. He stepped forward between the firelight and the direction the thing was…standing?
His head tilting back, Jake saw it. Something dark and tall beside the broken sapling. Its head portion was easily even with the break. It seemed as if it were turned his way. His shaking hand was soaking wet with fearful perspiration. He tried to glide his finger over the switch and it slipped several times before it clicked on. He willed his arm to lift and aim the light at the bear?
Jesus! That’s no bear!
It was looking right at him. He knew because the eye sockets were deeply set within the dark dome-shaped head. It seemed to sway back and forth as if barely able to contain its anger. Jake’s belly tightened in primal recognition of the impending charge. His hand quivered so much, he had to hold the flashlight with both hands.
Poised with his arms locked in front of him, hands holding the flashlight, Jake moved from the left to the right, giving it warning the light was coming. The illuminated bushes were all untouched, the slender tree, the snapped branch, and then…
It pulled its arms up over its head and ducked back as if the light were painful. The light danced wildly as Jake stepped closer, asserting his little bit of power over the beast. It was covered in dusty dark brown fur, its arms long and enormously well honed, its fingers curled up around its dome-shaped head and it let out a scream that was piercingly high-pitched for such a huge monster. It pivoted and took a huge step and with that one stride it was nearly out of the reach of the flashlight. Jake trembled violently as he watched the thing disappear into the brush near the creek and head back up the ridge. He could hear the heavy pounding of the striding footfalls and another short burst of howl that sounded more like a tenor warming up. The bushes along the top of the ridge rustled and then everything went silent.
Jake bent over, huffing and puffing. Stars twinkled in his eyes as he realized he was hyperventilating.
He had no idea how long he leaned against the tree with his flashlight aimed outwards, but it seemed to be the only magical protection from the creature. The others awakened and made a light comment about him getting up early and not making coffee. Jake couldn’t stop studying the woods around them. He used to love the forest, but now it seemed to harbor something that called it home. A home he and the others had just trespassed upon.
“Did you hear a coyote howl?”
“Hmm?” Jake was distracted.
“I heard a coyote last night.” Sam mentioned.
“I heard that too.” Laura admitted.
“Me too.” Sarah shivered and looked around the area.
The women’s concern helped to convince them to move on closer towards the way they came. They all agreed the waterfall area that had other campers wouldn’t be too bad. With relief, Jake helped Sam pack up the tents and helped to douse and bury the fire pit.
Unable to stop himself, Jake wandered over to the snapped sapling and looked up at it. Eight feet off the ground easily. He was 6 feet tall and with his arm outreached, he could barely reach the edge of the break. When he heard the others calling for him, Jake turned to leave, but not before looking for tracks. There in the damp boggy mud was a print. The size of it was enormous. The toes were well defined. He held his foot up against it and the track was easily 18 inches long.
“Come on slow poke!” Laura laughingly called out as she put her backpack on.
“I’m coming.” He offered. It wasn’t until he slipped into his backpack and joined the others on the trail that Jake considered what he’d seen. He’d heard of it before, but he couldn’t seem to use the word willingly. He’d always ridiculed people who spoke of the creature. He’d camped in the Northwest all his 47 years and never saw anything resembling the legend. But, it was with absolute conviction now that he could say the word, at least to himself.