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  • Writer's pictureTodd Stevens

The Trail. scene seven

The sound of the highway roaring past woke him early the next morning. He looked over and Cat was gone. Where his bedroll and knapsack had been was empty space, like he’d never been there at all. The sun was just barely up, and it was calm, the hail that had fallen the evening before was all gone. He unzipped his bag and turned to put his shoes on. I wonder why he changed his mind? He rolled his bag and packed it away. The traffic was heavy on the highway, a sharp contrast from the evening before when the storm had almost completely shut it down, and he’d been sleeping less than 100 feet from it. He slung the pack on his back and ducked out from under the trailer. The air was cool and the rain and hail had cleared all haze from the atmosphere. The rolling hills all around were clear, and the edges looked crisp against the pale blue sky. He could see Cat’s footprints in the mud heading back toward the stream, and he debated whether or not he was going to follow them. Maybe he got up early and got the hell out of here for a reason, maybe he was just shining you on? He looked at the footprints heading east, and then he looked north, the direction he ultimately wanted to go. He did some quick weighing of options while he absentmindedly pulled on the skin over his Adam’s apple…The hell with it. He started out following the footprints. He wondered if he could possibly be lonely so soon. He wondered if it made him weak to need companionship after only a couple of days, but quickly realized that was a ridiculous notion. Nothing wrong with wanting someone to talk to.

Mud gobbed on his feet and eliminated any traction his shoes had, and it felt like he was trying to walk across grease with butter for shoes. Every step was a concentrated effort not to fall. Halfway to the river he spooked a Killdeer from its nest. It called a series of sharp burbling notes and flew a few feet before landing on its little tan stick legs, fanning its black and white banded tail out, and feigning an injured wing by dragging it along the ground. I couldn’t catch you in this mud even if you were really injured. As he neared the river the faint smell of wood smoke touched his nostrils, and in the same moment, Cat’s head poked up over the cut bank. He made his way over to where Cat stood. Cat spoke over the rushing of the stream, “I was going to come down and get a fire started, then walk back and tell you where I was, but it took me forever to get over that gumbo without busting my ass. I figured that you’d see my tracks and follow them.” Tom stood above him and looked at the stream, it had doubled in size from the rain and melted hail. It was deep brown and carried bits of pine needles, bark, twigs and other flotsam downstream. There was an eddy swirling with yellowish foam in the bend of the stream behind where Cat stood. “Yeah, that’s what I did. Did I smell a fire, or was that just my imagination?” said Tom. Cat pointed to a hole dug into a piece of broken off bank. A thin, and almost imperceptible curl of smoke rose out of it. Tom climbed down the bank and looked into the hole, which was the diameter of basketball and twenty inches deep. A smaller hole was dug at an angle and came out near the bottom of the bigger hole. Tom tried to decipher what he was looking at. “I’ve never seen a fire built like this before.” Cat bent over and broke a gray piece of wood in half by pressing it over a bent knee. He dropped both halves into the fire. “I learned this from a guy up in South Dakota a few years ago. We were squatting on private land and had to be careful. He dug it right on the flat of the prairie. I couldn’t believe how hidden it was, and that draw hole almost eliminates the smoke.” Tom bent and picked up a piece of thin, weather white willow and broke off pencil sized chunks, dropping them piece by piece into the fire. “Huh, that’s something. How the hell do you think he learned that trick?” Cat stared into the fire hole and smiled, and Tom gauged him in the light for the first time. He was very lean, leaner than he’d appeared in the dark, and his skin was dark and smooth, and the contrast made his teeth and the whites of his eyes appear shockingly white. His hair was slicked into a wet ponytail, and even wet it was dark blond. “The guy was a native, said he learned the fire trick from his grandfather, said it was the only cool ancestral skill he ever learned.” Tom watched Cat as he spoke, watched to see eye color, green, watched to see if he could mine anything else, then abandoned the process when Cat asked him if he had any food. “I have a can of beans…that’s it. I didn’t plan the food part out very well. Cat squinted very slightly and raised his eyes briefly to Tom’s face. Only a couple days of whiskers, fresh haircut, new clothes…planned, the word sounded odd coming from someone on the road. “Beans are all you have huh? Well, I have three granola bars and a can of tuna. You throw that can of beans in, we split the tuna and one of them bars, and save the other two in case we don’t find something to eat out here for a while. That work for you?” Tom nodded that it would.

Before they ate Tom scooped a pan full of water from the stream and let it sit. They heated the beans and tuna in the cans they came in, and then ate from them. When they were done, Tom looked into the pan of water and could see that the mud had mostly settled to the bottom. He carefully poured the clear water out and into his frying pan, then tossed the remaining muddy water from the pot. He put the frying pan over the flame and began heating it. “What you doing?” said Cat. Tom reached into his pack and pulled out the instant coffee and shook it like it was a jar filled with gold dust. “Well I’ll be damned, I haven’t had a cup of coffee in two weeks.” said Cat. Tom smiled, “I figured it’d be a good way to kick off the day.”

Tom watched steam rise from the surface of the pan, and peripherally he watched Cat take a little wooden handled saw not much bigger than a butter knife from his bag, and cut the ends of a weather silvered stick off square on each end. The stick was about three feet long and the thickness of an egg. Tom looked at him from the corner of his eye. He watched as Cat held the stick up to the sun, almost as if he were offering it to some primal sun god. Then he looked down the length of it, one eye closed, like he was looking down the barrel of a rifle. Finally he held it in each hand, and smacked it into the palm of the other like a billy club. He didn’t say a word the whole time. When he finally finished testing it he sat on a clump of dirt that had broken off from the cut bank above them, and pulled out his multi tool and started peeling away the silver wood, exposing bright yellow strips with each stroke. Something about the process was mesmerizing, and Tom found himself staring. It wasn’t until a bit of boiling water escaped the pan and hissed in the coals of the fire that he looked away. “I almost became a mechanic.” said Cat out of nowhere, ”Had an uncle who was in the business. I used to ride my bike over to his house in the evening and watch him turn wrenches a little bit. He’d tell me what he was doing, show me the part that needed replacing, an alternator, maybe a starter. Then he’d have me grab the wrenches and hand them to him. When he gave them back he’d tell me to wipe them down and put em’ back in their slots. I liked the order they went in, from big to small, all shined up, and each tool in its own little slot. I liked the way that felt. I still remember standing on my tiptoes looking down between the firewall and the motor, down through the dust, and grease, and the hoses and shit. I remember seeing him down there in the light of that caged light bulb thing that hung from a hook, doing some mysterious work that I couldn’t see. He’d call for a ½ inch socket, and I’d fly to the tool box for it. I wanted him to think I was the best helper…” Cat’s voice tailed off and stopped, and at the same time, so did the whittling. He lifted the blade of the multi tool and ran his thumb across the edge slowly, as if he didn’t realize he was doing it. “I loved how those tools lined up so perfect…” and then he started whittling again.

They drank their coffee and listened to the rush of the stream. Cat had finished whittling and he’d stowed the stick upright in his pack, and stuck the multi tool into his pocket. He picked up the long slivers of wood he’d sliced off, and one by one he stuck an end into the fire until it caught flame, then let it burn dangerously close to his fingers before dropping the stub into the fire. Tom was anxious to get going, as if he had a standing appointment he needed to make. The more he thought about it, the more ridiculous his hurry to get moving seemed, he had nowhere to be, and yet the urgency he felt wouldn’t go away. Finally he spoke. “What way do you want to head?” he’d wanted to go north, but it was a vague, unfixed plan. Cat dropped a burning, whittled sliver into the fire. “It’s not so much what way I want to go, but where I have to go. We’re down to two granola bars, and I’d like to get a little more food in my pack before I go making any crazy plans. Two, two and a half miles north of here there's a little store. I think that’s a good starting spot.”

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