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FIRST THREE CHAPTERS!
One Last Stand
The evening sun dipped low over the horizon, sending a few last ripples of color before surrendering to the moon to cast its glow over the dark curtain of stars. Deep in the forest, a large campfire crackled and popped while the three young men relaxed and leaned back, each lost in his own thoughts while watching the last of the flames lick hungrily at the dry sticks. In the distance, they could hear the sound of water rushing over the rocks in the nearby creek, while a variety of insects began their nightly chorus. Trees swayed gently above their heads where the moon did it’s best to provide a small bit of light despite the dense leaves that permeated the woods surrounding their campsite. After a couple of hours of ribbing each other about the difficult hike, the fire began to burn low. The largest of them was a young man named Ben. His six foot two inch frame was almost as broad; and he had taken advantage of his size on the athletic field; but he was quiet and introspective most of the time. Ben came from a modest family and had had to work for as many of the 19 years of his life as he could remember.
Ben stood and stretched. “I’m heading to bed.”
Sam and Jake both stood and quickly spread out the coals and doused the fire with water from the nearby creek.
“Let’s sleep out here.” Sam said as he walked over to his pack to get his sleeping bag. Sam stood almost as tall as Ben, but was not as thick. He had been born into a family that gave him more money than time and feared almost nothing. His calloused heart and adventurous spirit made him the natural leader in the group.
“I’m in.” Jake said and hurried to follow Sam. Jake was significantly smaller and completely enamored by Sam’s swagger. His family was also well endowed and Jake knew nothing of the struggles someone like Ben faced every day.
Ben immediately chimed in, “Not me. I don’t want to be covered in mosquito bites tomorrow. You two are not welcome in my tent in the middle of the night, so make you choice now.”
“There’s no bug that can take me down!” Sam threw is sleeping bag down and flexed.
“I’ll bet you will change your mind in the morning.”
“You are such a girl!” Sam sneered and Jake quickly laughed as well.
Ben rolled his eyes and worked quickly to set up his tent in the darkness, while they continued to hurl harmless insults at him; but it didn’t last long. They had hiked over twenty-three miles and they were all exhausted. Ben climbed inside, zipped the door closed, and curled up in his sleeping bag. He didn’t care one bit if they made fun of him. Why would anyone carry a tent and not use it? He had hiked these kind of trails before and knew the value of protection from those horrible insects.
In what seemed like only a few minutes, Ben opened his eyes to see light dancing along the side of his tent. He was supposed to set his alarm and forgot. He rolled over and looked at his watch. It was after 8:00 AM, way past their scheduled start time of 7:00 AM.
“Crap!” He half yelled as he kicked off his sleeping bag and stuck his head outside the tent to see if the others were up. Sun beams had pushed through the foliage and the air was thick with heat. Ben was not surprised that they had all slept in so late with the mileage they had been putting in the last few days. Sleeping late was not unusual at home; but they had wanted to hit the trail early this morning in order to finish the last twenty miles to the next town. Jake was balled up in his sleeping bag and snoring; but Sam was nowhere in sight. His sleeping bag was gone as well, so Ben sat back down inside his tent and began to roll up his gear to get ready to leave. Ben expected to hear Sam’s stern voice any minute urging them to hurry, since the trip had been his idea.
A section hike along the Appalachian Trail to end the summer before heading back to school. It had sounded fun and exciting at the time; but Sam made everything sound that way. He could talk Jake into anything and usually did. Ben was the quiet one; but he had hiked a lot with his dad and relished the thought of getting out in the woods before having to return to his senior year at Meeks College in Meeks, Tennessee.
Ben tried to hurry and pack his things. He just wanted to finish this last day and get back home. After several days in the woods together, Ben’s patience was wearing thin. He was sure Sam would start in on him again about not sleeping outside and Ben didn’t want to listen to any more ribbing than necessary. Jake was getting on his nerves too with his nauseating man crush on Sam. They were both from a small town in Florida and attended Meeks as well, where the three of them had met. Jake was sucked into being Sam’s sidekick; and he really didn’t mind. Ben was through with both of them for now. He stuck his head back outside the tent and nudged Jake.
“Hey Jake! We need to get up. Looks like Sam’s already packed. You know how he likes to get on the trail early.”
Jake groaned and pulled the end of the sleeping bag over his head. “Not yet. Give me half an hour.”
By now, Ben was tugging his gear out of the tent and he pushed his friend with his foot. “I’m not kidding, man. Get up! We need to go!”
Jake sat up and rubbed his eyes, trying to wake himself up and buy a little time. “Do we have any more of those granola bars?”
“Sam has them in his bag. Let’s get this junk up and hit the trail. We can get more at the next town.”
“Man I’m heading straight for the nearest pizza place. I’m gonna eat a whole large pizza by myself.”
“Sounds good.” Ben finished packing his gear and began to disassemble the tent. As he began pulling up the stakes, he saw a trail of granola bars and clothes and he followed them into the edge of the woods, where he found Sam’s backpack open with the contents strewn all over the ground. “What the…” He went over and picked up the pack, which was covered in a wet, slimy substance. “Yuck! What’s this crap?”
Jake stumbled over, shoes on but not tied and still trying to will himself awake. “Oh, man, that’s gross. What is that?”
“Looks like something spilled all over it. It’s really sick.” Ben tossed the bag down.
“I’m not touching it. Sam can clean that up himself. Hand me one of those bars.”
“Get it yourself. Where the heck is Sam, anyway?”
“I would guess down by the creek.”
“Where’s his sleeping bag? Why would he take that down there without his pack?”
“I don’t know, maybe he slept down there.”
“That’s stupid. You stay here and keep packing your stuff, I’ll go check on him.”
“Whatever.” Jake laid back down on his sleeping bag, crunching on a bar.
“Get up, we need to be ready!”
“Okay, okay, I’ll get up,” but Jake continued to lay across the bag, while Ben walked down to the creek shaking his head and wishing this day would go fast.
There were strange marks on the ground on the path to the creek and Ben was trying to figure out what they were, when he found the source. He turned a corner and in the middle of the path was Sam’s sleeping bag, or what was left of it. The marks had been made by the bag being pulled down the trail. The bag was zipped closed but the middle was completely torn open with down and stuffing all over the ground and no sign of Sam.
Ben ran back up the short path. “Jake! Come here!”
Jake jumped up, “I’m awake!” he said with crumbs dripping down his chin and getting stuck in his beard. He wiped off the crumbs and followed Ben to the place where the sleeping bag laid torn open and destroyed. “Where’s Sam?”
“What happened to his sleeping bag?”
“Another good question.”
“Do you think it’s a bear?”
“I don’t know; I guess it’s possible. You were right next to him all night. Did you hear anything?”
“No, man. I was out. I barely remember going to bed.”
“Idiot! Did you guys drink again?”
“Just a little. Sam had a couple of small bottles from his dad’s last party. They were tiny.” Jake held his fingers up to show the size.
“So you guys got drunk and now you have no idea what happened because you were too passed out! How did you plan on hiking today? I cannot believe Sam–”
“No, man. He was already asleep. I just chugged away by myself.”
“You mean you cannot even stay away for just a few days? You are an alcoholic, man.”
“Sorry! Sam just threw them in at the last minute and last night just seemed right.”
A low growl followed by a stick snapping around the corner of the trail caused both Jake and Ben to drop to the ground. Any feelings of being annoyed with each other were quickly replaced with fear, as Jake slowly picked up a stick and looked around, staying close to Ben. They sat perfectly still and waited; but nothing happened. After a full minute, they both slowly stood up looked around. The only sound was the nearby water rushing over the rocks. Jake took the stick and began to poke around at the shredded bag. Ben held up his hand to signal Jake to stop and then cautiously continued on the trail down to the creek with Jake following closely behind, holding the stick up high and ready to strike. Neither said a word as they continued. The sight of the shredded bag made them fear the worst; but neither wanted to say it out loud. Nearing the water, they heard the low growl again and another stick break. Instinctively they both dropped low to the ground again and craned their ears. Jake started to tremble and Ben signaled for him to stay put, while he slowly moved forward to try to see what was making the strange noise. Ben suddenly stopped and turned to look at Jake and signaled for him to move up beside him. He leaned in close to Jake and whispered,
“It’s right around this corner, I can see it’s shadow moving.”
Jake nodded and tightened the grip on his stick.
“Stay close to me.” Ben picked up a rock the size of a baseball and moved forward again. Without warning, the growling stopped followed by silence. Ben and Jake looked at each other and sat motionless for what seemed like an eternity. Carefully, Ben eased around the corner and disappeared out of Jake’s sight. Jake waited and heard nothing, so he moved slowly forward and turned the corner. Ben was standing up looking at what appeared to be the same sticky substance on the ground.
“What–” Ben held up his hand to keep Jake quiet and he motioned for Jake to come near. Drops of the substance continued down the worn path ahead of them. Before either of them could say a word, everything went black.
Darkness was everywhere and his head hurt. Ben tried to move; but he was strapped down on his back. His instinct was to struggle to free himself and scream; but instead, he laid still and used his ears to get as much information as he could. The last thing that he remembered was following the trail to the creek and finding the battered sleeping bag. He and Jake had heard something weird and then he had crept forward to check it out. He remembered seeing nothing but suddenly everything went black. Now he was tied down on his back in a dark room and had no idea where he was.
What’s going on? Where are Sam and Jake?
As if on cue, Jake began yelling. “Ben! Sam!”
“Shhh.” Ben whispered, “I’m here. Just stay quiet.”
“Is that you, Ben? What’s going on, man?”
“Yeah, it’s me. I don’t know, but stay quiet. Try to work your arms and legs loose, if you can.”
“I have no idea. I almost have one hand loose. Keep quiet.”
Ben tugged and finally his right arm was free. He quickly untied his left arm and sat up as fear ripped through him. They were in some type of cave and it was pitch black except for the small light that bled into the opening about thirty yards to his left. He fumbled in the darkness to where he had heard Jake’s voice on his right to find the ropes that held his friend and feverishly untied them. Both boys looked around but could not see anything except the lighted area near the opening where light from the outside illuminated just a few feet inside. As they reached the edge of the light, Ben held up his hand and grabbed Jake to stop him from going any further.
“Do you hear that?” Ben whispered and Jake nodded. It sounded almost like a growl and panic gripped them both. Before either could try to move, something lashed out and both boys were yanked backwards further into the darkness. Ben felt his head strike the ground and heard Jake screaming his name; but there was no way to help him. He reached around on the ground and found a rock. At this point, he wasn’t even sure what they were fighting; and he had no idea which way to strike or if he would hit his friend, but he flung the rock as hard as he could toward the sounds of Jake struggling against whatever it was. Ben heard the rock hit something with a large thud followed by a horrible sound that was a mixture of some type of growl and a scream. There was no way to know what had happened, so he scrambled to his feet and decided to head for the light and hopefully the outside.
“Jake!” Ben half yelled but there was no answer, so he moved cautiously toward the light and ran right into Jake, who was trembling and speechless.
“Jake! Come on, man!” Ben tugged his friend’s arm and pulled him toward the light, while expecting to be attacked again at any moment. Something in the cave was moving around and screeching and Ben knew that they might not have long before it attacked again. He half drug and half yanked Jake until they were both out of the cave. The sudden light half blinded them but Ben pulled his friend down the beaten trail, hoping to outrun whatever was in that cave. They ran for a long time until they reached a small creek along the edge of the path.
“That might be a feeder creek to the large one we camped near.” Ben walked across the rocks to the other side, leaving the path.
“What are you doing? Shouldn’t we stay on the path?” Jake looked around nervously.
“I don’t think so. That’s definitely not the trail we were on and I don’t want to be anywhere near whatever that was back in the cave. We need to walk in the creek bed for awhile and lose our scent in the water. Maybe this small creek will dump into our creek and we can find the trail we were on and get out of here.”
“Okay, that sounds good.” Jake had no idea what to do and Ben knew it.
“Stay close.” Ben said as he led them downstream.
Ben kept a close eye on the surrounding woods and moved quickly over the stones and through the shallow water. He was thankful they were both wearing waterproof shoes and wanted to put as much distance between them and that cave as possible. After moving down the creek for about a half hour, Jake tripped and fell. Ben grabbed his friend’s hand and for the first time really looked at him. Across Jake’s face was a scratch and he was bleeding down the side of his face.
“What was that thing in the cave?” Jake began to tremble as he spoke and then started to cry.
“I don’t know but we’ve got to keep moving!”
“Where are we? And where’s Sam?”
“I have no idea; but it’s late in the day. The sun is going to set soon and we have to get somewhere safe so it won’t find us again. We’ve got to keep moving.”
“Okay.” Jake managed to say.
“Here, let me clean that wound.” Ben washed the scratch on Jakes’ face and then walked upstream. “We need to drink. I’m not sure when we can get water again.”
Both boys drank from cupped hands and Ben stood and looked around then pointed to a ridge. “We can try to get up there before dark to see if we can see the trail or something to head toward.” Ben was pointing up and Jake’s eyes followed. The mountain was steep and rocky but not impassable.
“Okay, I can do that.” Jake nodded over and over and began to mumble.
“Get ahold of yourself, Jake! We don’t have time for crazy. Whatever that thing was is going to come hunt us, do you understand?”
Jake nodded and let out a sigh. “I can do this.”
Both boys started the climb to the top of the mountain. Darkness was not far away and they both silently wondered how they could survive a night out here with no supplies and with that creature looking for them. Neither of them said a word as they moved quickly toward the top of the ridge before them. Within in an hour, they reached the summit and moved along the edge and found a small flat area with an overhang that could serve as some cover for the night.
“What do we do now?” Jake asked in a small voice.
“We survive.” Ben answered with conviction. In the distance they could hear something growling and moving through the forest.
The overhang wasn’t much and both Jake and Ben had trouble keeping their bodies back inside the shadows and out of sight. The sun was sinking quickly and both boys tried to stay still and listen to the sounds of the forest, particularly the sound of something continuing to move methodically below them.
“What is it, Ben?” Jake whispered.
“I’m not sure. It’s pretty far below us and doesn’t seem to be getting closer.”
“What are we gonna do?”
Ben held up his hand to signal for Jake to be quiet.
“Stay here,” Ben whispered, while he eased forward to try to catch a glimpse of the creature. The last rays of the sun were bleeding through the leaves, casting long shadows over the already dense foliage below. Ben inched carefully to the edge of the ridge and slowly peered over, where darkness was overtaking the woods. He squinted and slowly his eyes adjusted to the low light. The woods was eerily still and he scanned the trees and the ground below for any sign of movement. Even the sound had stopped, which made him more nervous. Hearing the movements of the creature had been frightening; but Ben quickly decided that the silence was much worse.
A strange low growl began to rumble through the air and Ben could see some leaves moving in the brush directly to the right and below where he was. He froze in place but was unable to see well in the fading light. He leaned further forward but felt the dirt beneath him slide, sending a few rocks cascading down the side of the mountain. The creature stopped moving again and Ben pulled back and plastered his body to the ground and waited. After several seconds, he lifted his head and strained to see what was below. The woods was completely still. Ben laid there on the ridge for several minutes without flinching and finally, he could hear the creature began to move again, this time heading away from where the they were hiding. Ben slid back beside Jake, who was curled in a ball and trembling.
Ben blinked and rubbed his face. “I’m not sure.”
“Well, what did you see?”
“Not much. But there was something moving through the brush—probably a bear.”
“That was no bear making all that noise! We’ve got to get out of here!”
“Shhh. Keep your voice down. It moved back down the mountain so we should be okay. There’s no way we can find our way out of here tonight. We just need to stay here and keep quiet.”
Jake shook his head and began to rock back and forth. “I don’t wanna die out here, man.”
“We’re not gonna die! Keep it together. Let’s just get some rest and we’ll start moving again at first light.”
Jake nodded. Ben was only able to see Jake’s outline in the growing darkness. “I’ll stay up for a few hours and you rest; and then we can switch.”
“Like in the movies.” Jake sighed and curled up on his side.
Ben moved toward the opening of the overhang, “Yeah, I guess.”
Ben leaned back against the rock and stared out into the darkness. His mind wandered back to a few days earlier when they had started on this hike. He wasn’t sure why this trip had been so important to Sam, who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Ben loved hiking; but he had had to quit his summer job early to get the time off to come here and he needed the money. Sam had made it sound urgent—like the trip was something they had to do, as if it were life or death. And now it really was. His thoughts stayed on Sam. What happened to him? Was he back in that cave too? There was nothing they could do for him until they could find some help. For now, they were still in danger as well.
Two hours passed and Ben was starting to get tired. Jake had rolled to his back and began to snore and make strange noises, so Ben pushed his friend back onto his side. The night was clear and cool with no signs or sounds that the creature was back. Ben stared at the tops of the trees and thought through the last 24 hours. Just last night he and his friends were heading to bed after a great day of hiking and anticipated being in the next and final town by today. Eating a large meal and getting a clean shower had dominated his thoughts all day on their last hike. Now, he was stuck on a ridge with Jake and their friend Sam was missing. His mind rummaged through anything his father had taught him about survival in the woods. His stomach started to rumble. How long had it been since they had eaten anything? He wasn’t even sure. All of their supplies were gone, including cell phones, which didn’t work out here anyway. Water was the main problem. He knew that they needed water by tomorrow or they would be in trouble.
I need to make it another hour and then I can wake Jake for his turn.
His stomach growled again and he tried to remember any of the plants his father had mentioned that were edible in the woods but nothing came to mind.
Why didn’t I pay more attention to my dad back then?
He knew why. His father had been hard on him and he resented it. The hiking was fun and it was really the only time that they agreed on anything; but taking his father’s advice was too hard back then.
They needed to get to the creek in the morning and get some water. He knew that they were risking getting sick; but without the water, they would not live much longer anyway. The creek bed would be an easy way to find the trail, since it ran close to the creek most of the last few miles. They could backtrack to the last town and call for help.
Ben woke Jake and moved to the back of the overhang to get some sleep.
“Make sure you stay awake. I just need a couple of hours—three if you can make it that long.”
“I got it,” Jake said and he moved to where Ben had been sitting and leaned back on the rock.
Ben watched Jake for a few minutes to make sure his friend was fully awake and then he drifted off to sleep. In what seemed like only a few minutes, Jake was shaking him violently.
“There’s something out there! It’s moving up the mountain!”
“Follow me and stay as quiet as you can,” Ben said and moved quickly out onto the ridge and along the edge. The sun was just coming up but there was not enough light to see anything clearly. He could hear the strange sounds of the creature as it moved through the woods, inching closer to them. They reached the edge of the ridge and it dropped off at least 100 feet. As the creature grew closer, Ben looked around for somewhere to hide. A thick cluster of wild azaleas stood against one side of the ridge and both boys ran and crouched behind them, each grabbing a loose rock on the way. Within seconds, they could hear the creature move onto the ridge. It seemed to be tracking where they had been and they could hear it move into the overhang. Jake was trembling but Ben kept his eyes glued on the edge of the rock where they had taken turns keeping watch during the night. There was nowhere to go now. If the creature came around to the ledge, they would have to fight for their lives.
Seconds ticked away as they listened for any sign that the creature was moving again. Finally, they heard a sound; but it wasn’t what they expected. It sounded like…moaning. Jake looked at Ben.
“What do we do now?” Jake whispered.
Ben shrugged, “We can’t leave until it leaves—we’re trapped here, so we wait.”
The moaning stopped and they both instinctively crouched lower as they heard the creature moving toward them. Both boys gripped their rocks and Jake slid closer to Ben. As the creature stepped around the rock, the sunlight was to it’s back, creating only a silhouette. Ben raised his rock and prepared to fight and then stopped. The dark shape was standing on two legs…it was human. Ben’s first instinct was to bolt out from behind the brush and ask for help; but there was no way to know if this person would be trustworthy. His mind recalled the ropes that had held them down back in the cave…no animal could have tied those. This could be the one that had captured and held them. Jake began to poke Ben in the ribs and started to rise up; but Ben jerked him back down. The person turned and looked at the edge of the cliff and then over at the bushes where they were hiding. Now they could tell it was a man…and a large man at that. Ben studied the man as he moved and something was familiar about his gait. Before he could put it all together, Jake suddenly leaned forward as if he too noticed something. The man took a few more steps toward them and Ben and Jake both recognized him at the same time—it was Sam.
Jake jumped up first and ran to his friend. “Sam! Where have you been?” When he reached Sam’s side, he pulled back to study his face and paused. Sam appeared to be dazed and confused and unable to understand who Jake was. He opened his mouth and moaned and then collapsed to the ground. Ben had stayed back but now bolted to Sam’s side to examine him. He had scratches along both sides of his face and a long gash on his right arm. Sam looked at Jake and then at Ben and opened his mouth to speak but made only a few unrecognizable sounds.
“He’s extremely dehydrated. I think we will be too if we don’t get water soon.”
“Will he be okay?” Jake asked, almost in tears. “What happened to him?”
“I don’t know.” Ben wasn’t used to being the leader and preferred not to be, gladly acquiescing to more boisterous boys like Sam. Now, he was thrust into this new and uncomfortable role.
“We’ve gotta get help,” Jake stood and began pacing back and forth, “We all need to get home. That thing is still out there!”
Ben kept working with Sam, tearing off a piece of his own shirt to tie around Sam’s arm, where the long gash was caked over with dried blood and oozing some pus, indicating an infection. He checked Sam’s forehead and he was burning hot with a fever.
“If there’s anything out there, it’s probably gone—it would’ve gotten Sam by now. He’s been an easy target for several hours, just wandering around with this infection and fever.”
“Something captured us and put us in that cave. There’s some kind of creature out there and we’ve gotta get out of here now!”
“It wasn’t a creature that tied us down. Had to be human,” Ben answered calmly. “Human? Ben, that was not a human that grabbed me in that cave!”
“Are you sure? I mean what do we really know? Someone…or something grabbed us both and tied us down…only a human could do that.”
“But it attacked us—look at that scratch on Sam! And it growled!”
“I know! I mean it’s weird.” Ben grew silent and scanned the ridge and mountain tops around them. “We do need to get out of here.”
“What about Sam?” Jake stopped pacing and looked around nervously. The side of the mountain they had climbed was not too steep; but if there was something out there, they would be vulnerable trying to help Sam get down.
Ben stood and dusted off his pants. “We could leave him here—” “What? We can’t do that—”
Ben held up his hands. “Hear me out. We can move faster without him.” “I’m not leaving him!” Jake surprised even himself with his stern response.
Ben studied Jake and then answered, “You can stay with him and I can hike out. I think I could be back in two days with help.”
“Two days? What’re we supposed to do for that long? What if that thing finds us.”
Ben didn’t have an answer for that. After contemplating for a minute, he spoke, “Look, let’s get down this mountain and find some water for us all and clean Sam’s wound. Your forehead needs some attention too.”
Jake reached up and felt his head and winced. His scratch was also starting to turn puffy and red.
An hour later, they had eased down the mountain with Sam and found a trail. Sam still hadn’t said a word and just moaned occasionally when they stumbled over a root; but he was coherent enough to robotically follow them. By noon, they found a creek and took some time to clean their wounds and bind them the best that they could. They also took turns drinking as much water as they could. Sam followed their suggestions and sat in silence.
They stayed with the trail and walked for another hour, backtracking what they thought that they had hiked the day before; but it was all beginning to look the same.
“Are you sure this is the right direction?” Jake stopped with Sam and sat on a rock to rest.
“No. But we are on a trail and it’s leading us to a town somewhere.” Ben sat down to rest and looked around at the surrounding woods and his stomach growled and rumbled.
“How do you know that? What if it’s leading us further into the wilderness? This land goes for miles out to the middle of nowhere. What if we’re going in circles and not going anywhere?”
Ben was getting irritated with Jake’s constant whining. “I don’t know! I’m just following a trail. If you can do any better, then do it! There are blazes here, so it has to be a registered trail.”
Both fell silent and Sam stood without a word and walked over to the edge of the trail and stared at the ground then started rocking back and forth, moaning. Directly in front of his feet was a small opening into some brush that led behind a large rock. Ben got on his knees and poked a stick around and then disappeared into the opening. When he emerged, Sam was crying and rocking.
“Sam, did you hide in there?” Ben grabbed his friend by the shoulders. “You’ve got to tell us what happened!”
“What’s in there?” Jake bent down to look inside the opening.
Ben shook Sam again. “You’ve got to snap out of this and talk! What happened to you?”
Jake moved inside and then scurried back out quickly. “Disgusting! What’s this crap?” His hands were covered in the slimy substance. Sam took one look at Jake’s hands and backed away shaking his head, then turned and ran up the trail.
“Come on!” Ben said as he took off after Sam with Jake on his heels.
When they rounded the next bend in the trail, they found Sam on his knees gasping for air. Ben knelt in front of him. “What’s going on, Sam?”
“We…We…We’re going to die…” Sam whispered.
“Sam!” Jake grabbed his friend’s arm. “Tell us what happened to you!”
Sam slowly stood and pointed up the trail a few feet and started to shake. Both Ben and Jake stood quickly and turned around. They couldn’t see anything at first and then Ben saw what Sam was looking at: claw marks on the tree. There were four distinct deep grooves.
Jake finally saw the marks and screeched, “It’s a big bear! I knew it! I saw a documentary on how a bear marks his territory like that.”
“Except a bear has five claws,” Ben stated flatly. He walked over to the marks and examined them. They seemed fresh but yet something wasn’t right. “This wasn’t made by a bear and they look fake—like someone did this intentionally.”
“Who would do that and why? It’s gotta be a big bear!”
Sam spoke again, “It’s not…a bear. It’s much worse.”
“Did you see it?” Ben asked, starting to get more irritated as his hunger continued to grow.
Sam shook his head. “No, but it drug me in my sleeping bag. It was too dark to see. I don’t remember much after that.”
“A bear can do that. It’s happened before—I’ve read stories about that.” Jake spoke again.
Ben looked at Jake and then back at Sam. “Tell us what happened.”
Before he could speak, they heard voices coming down the trail.
“Get behind the rocks,” Ben whispered and they all moved quickly to hide behind a huge group of rocks along the side of the trail below where the tree was marked.
“Why are we hiding?” Jake asked and Ben placed his hand over Jake’s mouth as the voices grew louder.
“When will it be?” One voice said in a clear southern drawl.
“Soon,” another voice answered, this one slightly deeper.
A female spoke next, “Well, we need to get ready.”
The three stopped right in front of the rocks where the boys were hiding. The one with the deep voice spoke next, “Let’s get back up there and eat first, I’m pretty hungry.”
The others agreed and their voices trailed off as they walked up the trail.
Jake whispered excitedly, “They have food! They probably know the way out too—let’s go.”
Ben pulled him back down and Sam just waited for Ben to speak. “We don’t know who we can trust right now. We need to be careful.”
“I’m starving! I say we trust them.”
“Don’t let your stomach make this decision.”
Sam reached in his pocket and slowly pulled out four granola bars. “I have these.”
Ben just stared at Sam and then grabbed the bars before Jake tore into them. “Is this all the food you have?”
“Okay, let’s each eat one bar and then the last one we will split. I think we will be out of here soon and won’t need to save any. Besides, I’m thinking we might follow this group and see if we can maybe get some food from them.”
Everyone agreed and the bars were gone in seconds. Ben took the wrappers and dug a small hole and buried them.
“What’re you doing?” Jake asked.
“We need to do this with our bandages too. Everything that could attract a bear needs to be buried.”
“It’s not a bear,” Sam said again.
“Well I don’t know what happened to us but there are bears out here and we need to bury it!” Ben was trying to stay calm but he was tired of the woods and both Jake and Sam and just wanted to get home.
“Okay,” Jake answered in a small voice.
“We need to stay off the trail and move up to where this group is camping to see what’s going on before we can trust them.”
Ben started moving through the brush along the trail and Sam and Jake fell in step behind him. As they moved up the trail, they started to hear the voices drifting toward them, growing louder as they approached. Within a few hundred feet, they reached a small opening to a creek and the sounds of the water helped conceal their approach. At the last turn, Ben stopped and then walked forward a few steps on the trail and came back. “I think I know where we are.”
“If I’m right, we might be in luck.”
Ben started turning from side to side and searching along the edge of the trail and then pointed.
“There it is!”
Jake looked where Ben was pointing and saw a piece of the ripped sleeping bag, which had been thrown behind a tree along the trail. Sam started shaking again and sat down, putting his head in his hands.
“This is where it happened,” he said quietly.
Jake started to recognize the area as well and all three knew that they were near their old campsite and the last place they had been before this had all begun.
“The creature might be here,” Jake said and looked around as he spoke, eyes wide and his lips trembling.
Ben motioned for them all to circle around behind him and they headed up through the woods to the outer edge of the campsite. The boys crept forward slowly, being careful to make as little noise as possible. The three at the campsite were talking loudly and music blared out of one of their cell phones. Ben moved to a small hill behind one of the tents and Jake and Sam followed and laid on the ground beside him. They crawled slowly to the top of the hill and peered over the edge as they listened to the group cracking jokes and talking. After several minutes, the boys learned that the one with the deep voice seemed to be the leader and the girl called him Nick and the other boy was Michael. The girl’s name was Dale and she was Nick’s girlfriend.
“I’m stuffed,” Dale said and handed Michael her plate, “do you want the rest?”
Michael grabbed the plate and ate the rest of her food without answering.
“Geez, Michael, it’s like you’re an animal or something.”
Nick laughed, “He is an animal! He’s a freaking bear!”
At this, they all laughed and Michael held up his knife and growled. “I marked my tree back there!”
Ben looked at Jake and Sam and they all relaxed a little bit. Knowing it wasn’t a bear that had scraped the tree made them all a little less tense.
“Should we go meet them?” Jake asked.
“Not yet,” Ben answered. “I’m still not sure.”
Something stirred in the tent beside them and they heard someone inside moving and making weird sounds. The three boys stopped talking and moved back a few feet down the hill to stay out of sight and laid low on the ground to watch the tent and the group carefully.
“What was that in the tent?” Jake whispered.
“I don’t know; but we need to stay as quiet as possible.”
The sound from the tent increased and Dale turned abruptly and looked at the tent. “Shhhh. Turn that music off.”
Michael reached over to turn it off while Dale moved toward the tent. She stared in the direction of where the boys laid slightly behind the tent and then spoke, “I hear you! Don’t think you’re so smart!”
Ben’s heart was racing and he began to pray that they hadn’t been discovered just yet. He wasn’t sure that this group could be trusted.
The noise in the tent increased slightly and finally a female voice answered from inside, “Please, I won’t tell. Just let me go home.”
Dale moved quickly to the tent and threw open the flap, “No one can hear you out here, sweetie, so keep quiet. We decide when to go home and what we do.”
The girl inside the tent didn’t answer but the boys could hear her sobbing. Dale threw the flap down and stomped back over to Michael and Nick. “She’s a blubbering mess. I don’t know what to do with her. You brought her, Michael, you deal with it.”
Michael sat his plate down and picked up the knife and walked toward the tent. Ben fought the urge to lunge at Michael and prayed that something would stop him before he entered that tent to hurt the girl inside.
“Geez, Michael, I was kidding!” Dale moved quickly to Michael’s side and handed him something. “Eat that, it’ll calm you down.” He looked down at the brownie in his hand and she smiled. “It’s my special recipe, if you know what I mean.”
Michael smiled and shoved the whole brownie in his mouth and returned to sit with the other two. When he wasn’t looking, Ben saw Dale make the crazy sign to Nick and point at Michael.
Ben, Sam, and Jake stayed pinned down on the hill behind the tent, watching the other three.
“What now?” Jake asked and Ben just signaled for him to stay still. Before Jake could respond, the girl inside the tent slipped out the door and began to run directly toward them.