by Gary Hoffman [appeared first in Books ‘N Pieces Magazine, July 2017 issue]
He knew hoping wasn’t going to save him, but he was doing it anyway. He thought of the cliché ‘hoping against hope,’ but it didn’t make any more sense to him before or now. He was still hanging by his parachute lines where his chute got tangled in the trees. Of course, their training had included what to do in situations like this. They had a large knife strapped to their waist that they would use to cut the lines, and they could drop to the ground. In his case, he was only about three feet from the ground, so even the fall wouldn’t be dangerous.
Then the unthinkable happened. As he was cutting the first line, his hand was shaking so much from all the adrenalin cursing through his system, he dropped the knife. His entire existence now was three feet away from him.
He tried to move quickly up and down thinking maybe a jolt would help loosen the lines from the strong branches of the white oak. That only got him some extra bruises in his groin.
He tried to get his body swinging from side to side thinking maybe he could grab hold of the tree trunk and use it as leverage to pull on the ropes. He could not swing in a large enough arc, and there were no smaller trees close to him. The large white oak had smothered anything else out from growing near it.
The clips holding his harness on had jammed. He couldn’t release from it.
There was a hank of rope in his backpack and a small grappling hook. He thought he might be able to grab onto the knife and pull it up to him, but he couldn’t reach the backpack and it was being held right up against his back due to pressure from the parachute lines.
So he dangled there.
David Barkley, a twenty year old college student, made money in the summer by fighting fires. He was a smoke jumper. He had parachuted into seven fires before this one, but never had this kind of trouble. First of all, his chute didn’t open right when he pulled the rip cord. He went to the emergency pull, and it worked. Second, as soon as his chute deployed, he felt a huge draft of wind. Parachutist called it a wind sheer. Somehow at the level his chute opened, the air currents were different. He drifted toward the earth while watching the other smoke jumpers from his troop land miles away from where he was going to settle in. He was sure someone had seen him, but right now their commitment was to fight a major forest fire. He had no idea how long before they would come looking for him.
And tonight temperatures were going to drop below zero up in these mountains. He laughed to himself when he thought about how much he would like to be able to build a fire right now. At least his buddies would be warm.
He could feel his legs going numb. His circulation was being cut off by the parachute harness.
Then he heard a noise coming from behind him. It was faint and a long ways away, but it didn’t sound like something created by the wind or other parts of Mother Nature.
Then he thought about bears.
They were supposed to be hibernating now, weren’t they? It was winter. Just my luck, I’d run into one who hadn’t hit the sack for the winter yet.
He tried to twist around to see behind him, but that didn’t work. It only made his legs hurt more.
There was another faint sound. Closer.
A fox squirrel came out on a branch fifty feet in front of him and started clucking at him, telling him in no uncertain terms he was not welcome there.
Even in his situation, David had to smile. He’d hunted a lot of those guys while growing up in Kentucky. His mama’s squirrel and dumplings were sure good eatin’. Then having home-churned vanilla ice-cream topped with fresh peaches for dessert. His dad and older brother playing their banjos on the front porch after supper. All was right with the world.
And now I’m gonna freeze to death in Montana with a squirrel as a witness. He laughed out loud.
“Sure doesn’t look like you got much to laugh about,” a female voice from behind him said.
Could it possibly be? A rescuer so fast? A woman? There were no women in his troop, although there were women in other troops around the country.
“God, am I glad to hear a human voice.”
“Better not be thinkin’ so just yet. I might not cut you down.” She snickered.
He was struggling to turn around, but still couldn’t see who the voice was coming from. Then he heard her walking, and she got in front of him. She picked up the knife. “You’ll have to cut the lines yourself. I can’t reach them,” she said as she handed him the knife. “Looks like you at least keep it good and sharp. Too many people get hurt by dull knives.”
He started to cut the lines. He was hanging sideways as he finally got to the last two lines. She got behind him and put her arms around his waist. “Maybe I can keep you from making a complete fool of yourself.”
With the last line cut, David fell softly to the ground. She was strong, stronger than most women he knew.
“You don’t know how happy I am to see you.”
“Well, I’d be pretty happy if someone kept me from becoming a hanging frozen pop-cycle.”
He looked down to hide the blush he knew was coming to his face. He could feel the warmth.
When he stood, his legs felt weak from the lack of circulation. He leaned against the trunk of the white oak. “I’m David,” he finally said. He looked at the woman, but couldn’t tell what she looked like because of the ski mask she was wearing.
“Marsha. Gonna get dark in an hour or so. Take us that long to get back to my place. How long you been hangin’ there?”
“We jumped at eleven this morning.”
“’Bout five hours then. That’s about the time I saw you were in trouble. Those wind sheers can be dangerous. I was up in the ridge trying to find a coyote that’s been coming in after my chickens. Had a good view of the whole operation.” She offered him a drink from a canteen hanging on her belt. The water was sweet and tasted like spring water from Kentucky.
He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “You live out here?”
“Yep. Soon as you can walk, we need to get started. Could whip up a snow tonight.”
“We didn’t have any reports of that.”
“Not surprising, but I know this country. Winds are telling me a snow storm might be blowin’ in. Help put out that fire. Don’t need it coming my way.”
“Well, I think I can walk now. Let’s get going. I got saved from freezing once. Don’t need to try for another time.”
The walk to where Marsha lived took all of an hour, and she was setting a fast pace even though she limped slightly and seemed to drag her right foot just a little. David struggled to keep up with her, especially at first, but when his legs got to feeling normal, it was easier. He was glad for all the training his commanding officer had put him through.
The forest was thick in places, but opened up into long meadows in other places. Streams and small waterfalls dotted the landscape. They crossed two small creeks by walking on logs. There was ice close to the shore, but in the center, the current kept the water from freezing. Even in the rushing water he saw many large fish he figured were trout.
The wind died, and David realized they had entered a canyon that blocked the wind. About half a mile into the canyon was a large rock overhang with a log cabin and two outbuildings built under it. Smoke eased its way around the rock shelf and dissipated before going very high. Not much of it was visible as it made its way to the top of the huge trees growing on top of the rock cliff. Even fire spotters would probably not see smoke from this fire.
Smoke also meant heat in this case, and he was ready. The cold was slipping around any folds or openings in his clothing to find his skin. Heat from a fireplace or wood stove was going to feel welcome.
When he entered the cabin, the first thing he saw was a pot belly stove, one of the old ones with lots of nickel chrome work on it. It stood about four feet tall and was vented through a stove pipe into the wall. On the floor behind the stove was a large pillow that may have been yellow at one time. Wallowed down in a nest in the pillow was a large, grey and white, shaggy dog. He raised his head to look at David, waged his tail three or four times, and put his head back down.
Marsha saw him looking at the dog. “He’s harmless. Even if he bit you, all you’d feel are his gums. He’s lost most of his teeth. I figure he’s about fifteen years old. He’s part Russian Wolf Hound, I think, so I named him Czar.” The dog raised his head when he heard his name. Marsha laughed. “That’s about all he can hear. His name. That usually means food, so he’s always on the lookout for that.”
David backed up to the stove and put his hands behind him.
“Better get out of those heavy clothes. Let the heat get to your body,” Marsha said as she started peeling off outer layers of her clothing.
When her ski mask came off, he got his first look at her face. There were a few lines, but they appeared to him to be lines of wisdom. Things people acquire by working hard in the outdoors. There was something behind her deep set brown eyes that she tried not to have there. Her graying hair was braided and twisted around her head in a crown. David figured she could be anywhere from thirty to forty years old. He would guess her to weigh a hundred and twenty pounds and was tall for a woman, probably five ten or a little more. Her hands were well worn and used to work. She hung her heavy coat on a peg by the only door in the cabin.
David looked around as he stood by the stove. The cabin was probably twenty foot square. There were two windows in the front and one on each side. He knew the back faced into the rock ledge. Most of the wall space was taken up with bookshelves that were overloaded with books. A cooking stove that burned wood was against the back wall. It was vented by another stove pipe. A bucket sat on a shelf beside it. Cabinets were under the shelf and on the wall above it. He guessed that was the kitchen. A double bed was against the left wall.
A table and two chairs took up the middle of the cabin floor. It held salt and pepper shakers, a sugar bowl, a jar of coffee creamer, and a kerosene lamp.
“Looks like you’ve got all the comforts of home,” David said.
“It is home. Has been for a long time.” She lifted the globe on the kerosene lamb and lit the wick with a long wooden match. He got a better look at her face.
“Seems like I’ve seen you somewhere before. Not recently. From some time back.”
She laughed. “Doubt that. I’ve probably been living up here when you were still in diapers.”
He chuckled with her, but tried to place where he had seen that face before.
“Soon as you warm up a little more, go out to the west side of the cabin and get me some small kindling wood. Got a basket there you can fill.’ She pointed to the cook stove. “ I’ll get old Mabel there fired up and get us some grub for supper.”
“Good a name as any, Don’t you think?”
He shook his head. “Probably.” He put his coat back on, picked up the kindling basket, and headed out. It was then he noticed what he was sure was an outhouse off further to his left. When he returned with the basket, Marsha was working some flour on top of the kitchen shelf. “Hope you like biscuits and gravy.”
She laughed. “Never found one yet. There’s always that chance.”
“Not from me or anyone I know.”
“Good. Put your body down in a chair and tell me about yourself. We might be here for a long time before they find you, if they ever do.”
That kind of startled him, but he started on a quick sketch of himself. “My name’s Davis Barkley. I grew up in the hills of Kentucky. Got two brothers and three sisters. My mom and dad still live in the house I grew up in. I’m going into my senior year at U. of K..”
“Oh, what are you majoring in?” She put a coffee pot on the stove.
“And what will you do after you graduate?”
“I’m gonna try and work for the state conservation commission. Maybe as a game warden or field officer of some kind. You’ve got the perfect place out here to observe wildlife.”
“Plenty of that around here,” she said as she slid a pan of biscuits into the oven of the cook stove. “You stay here now while I go out to the cache I got hanging in a tree a little ways down the canyon. Got some pork sausage in there. Keep an eye on the coffee. If I’m not back get it off the stove just after it starts perking. That’ll be strong enough.”
Maybe she’ll tell me about herself when she comes back.
He shivered as she opened the door and went out. He rubbed his hands together, and went over to one of the book shelves. He always liked to see what kinds of things people read. He thought you could tell a lot about a person by what books they kept, not just the ones they read.
There were a lot of classic novels, many books on nature subjects, and sports. On another wall there were dictionaries, some almanacs, and history books. Then he noticed a stack of folded newspapers. He took the top one from the pile. It was The Daily Chronicle published out of Bozeman, Montana. It was dated two months ago.
Well, she’s got some way to get out to get these papers. And she sure doesn’t grow her own coffee beans around this part of the country.
He looked at the next one, and it was dated a week before the first paper. He heard her coming back just outside the door. He smelled the coffee perking and went over to take it off the stove just as she opened the door. .
“Good timing on my part. I’m ready for a hot cup. How about you?”
“Absolutely. Smells fantastic.”
“That and bacon are just hard not to smell, aren’t they.”
She got two mugs from one of the cabinets. David noticed one had a name on it, but it was hard to read because it had worn down from usage. It looked like it said Walter at one time. She set them on the table, kept the Walter mug for herself, and added creamer and sugar to hers. “I’m a pansy. Got to doctor mine up.”
“Black for me.”
She blew on the steaming liquid and tried to take a sip. It didn’t take her long to figure out it was still too hot to drink.
“Well, I told you about myself. How about you?”
She finally got a small sip into her mouth. “Not really much to tell. My name’s Marsha Kingston. I grew up in San Francisco. Decided after college and teaching for three years that wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I saved up some money, found this place, and bought it. Been livin’ like this for some time now. Wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
“Ever been married?”
“Nope. And not many serious boyfriends. And no, I’m not gay. Be pretty stupid to move up here if I was. You’ve probably noticed a lack of other females in the area.”
“Or anyone else.” He paused. “Can I ask a question?”
“Do I have to answer?”
“I guess not if you don’t want to.”
“That mug you’re using looks like it said Walter on it at one time. Who’s he?”
She ran her finger around the lip of the mug. “Let’s just say he was someone who was at one time. He’s out of my life forever now.”
“He why you moved up here?”
“This is going in the wrong direction for me. I better get supper on the table.”
The biscuits reminded him of his mother’s. The gravy was unlumpy and tasty.
Afterwards, she washed dishes, and he dried.
“I read for an hour or two now. How long depends on how long my eyes decide to stay open and how my brain is comprehending what I’m reading. You really have a choice, read or sit there until you fall sleep. And by the way, we’re going to have to share a bed. It will be for sleeping purposes only. Only. Do I make myself clear?”
“Good. It’ll work if we make it work. If I decide you are thinking of using the bed for more than sleeping, you and Czar can share.” The dog looked up again, and David heard his tail hit the wall a couple of times. “He does go out right before I go to bed, so that’s how almost all of my evenings go. Might sound boring to most people, but it works for me.”
“When in Rome.”
You’re not one of those people who going to use clichés a lot, are you?”
“No not really. Don’t know where that came from.”
“Well, keep it there with any others you might have stored. Okay?”
“And don’t ma’am me. I ain’t that old. Maybe to you, but not to me.”
“Yes. … er …Marsha.”
“Very good. Now find something to read.”
He smiled. “Yes, mother.”
“Oh, that could get you in a lot of trouble.”
“Care if I read one of those newspapers? I follow sports a lot.”
“Have at it, but it’s old news and not very exciting unless you want to find out who attended Miss Porky’s tea party for her birthday.”
“So why do you get them?”
“They do have some stuff in there worth reading. Got some good crossword puzzles and other things to do.”
“I can probably get some of the old news about my favorite teams in them. Won’t bother me that they’re out of date.” He paused. “Mind if I ask you how you get them?”
“Actually, yes.” She cleared her throat. “You may find out in a day or two anyway. Depends on how soon your people come looking for you and if they find you back here.”
David got a newspaper. She was right—most of it was local news and gossip. The crosswords had all been worked. About nine thirty, they decided to go to bed.
“Okay, I been thinking about this,” she said. “I’m gonna hang up an extra blanket so we can change clothes behind. I don’t suppose you got any extra clothes in your backpack?”
“I’ve got a couple pair of old sweatpants that might work for you to sleep in. They might be a little large, but they’ll work. Okay?”
“Yeah. Fine. Did they belong to Walter?”
“Too many questions. You go change clothes first.” He was still trying to figure out where he had seen her picture. He had finally figured out he had never met her, but he had seen her picture somewhere.
She tied a rope from one side of the cabin to the other and hung a blanket over it. “That should work. Neither one of us got anything the other one hasn’t seen anyway. I’m gonna take Czar out to do his business now. Be in bed when I get back.” It wasn’t a question.
“I’ve got a bucket I use to pee in during the night or first thing in the morning. You probably saw the outhouse. One thing about this kind of weather, you won’t waste any time in there.”
David woke once during the night and used the bucket. He had to wrestle her arm from across his chest to get out of bed.
While drinking coffee the next morning, Marsha went to a calendar hanging by the cook stove and put an ‘X’ through yesterday’s date. She then brought a small two-way radio to the table. “This is one of the few things I use electricity for. I’ve got an antenna and small wind generator on top of the bluff and storage batteries out behind the cabin. I make this call on the third of the month in the even numbered months. Yesterday when I said something about you being here a while, I forgot what the date was. Normally, I don’t pay much attention to a calendar, except to mark it off every day.”
She strung three wires from one of the cabinets. They had clips on the ends that she hooked to the radio, two for the electric and one for the antenna. After a short warm-up, she got some static. “You on Steinbeck?”
A voice came back after about ten seconds. “Yep. Tomorrow morning about eleven. Anything special you need?”
“Nothin’ I can think of right now. Probably will by the time you get here. Thanks, buddy. See you tomorrow. Got a passenger you might take back with you. I’ll explain when you get here.”
“Not a problem. See you tomorrow. Don’t forget your trade books.”
“Try not to. Out.”
She unhooked the radio and got everything stored away again for another two months. “Well, tomorrow you’re gonna meet Steinbeck and Charlie.”
“I hope to hell you’re gonna explain this. I know where those two names came from.”
She laughed. “A guy whose real name I can’t tell you because I forgot it delivers things to me. He rides an old mule named Charlie, so I started calling him Steinbeck. He likes it, so it stuck.”
“How in the heck did you make contact with a guy like that?”
She cocked her head sideways and looked at him. “How seriously do you follow sports?”
He snapped his fingers. “That’s it. Sports. I knew I’d seen you somewhere, but it’s been a while.” He studied her face for almost a full minute. “You’re not Marsha Kingston. Your name is Maria Kutter. You ran track in the Olympics. You were slated to maybe sweep all the individual women’s track running events.” He stopped. “But you disappeared. The story was you went out for a practice run and was never heard from again. It was assumed that you’d been abducted. There was a lot of speculation as to whether some nut might have gotten you or maybe even people from another country who wanted their team to have a better chance. It was also thought maybe some animal got to you.”
“Not even close. It was a knot on a tree root.”
“I was out for a practice run. I stepped sideways on a tree root and turned my ankle. Actually not only turned it but broke a couple small bones in it, I think. I know I couldn’t even walk on it. I was out there for four hours before Steinbeck came along and found me. Fortunately, his mind-set is much the same as mine. He chooses to live like he does even though he could live much better, according to most people. But he’s not most people. .
“All the time I was laying out there in the forest, I was thinking this would end my career. Then it dawned on me this would be a perfect way to get out of the Olympics and away from any spotlights all together.”
“You probably don’t have any idea what it’s like to be rated best in the world. The pressure that puts on a person? You only live to run. I had to be faster than any other woman on this planet. This planet. Think about that.
“I actually started running competitively when I was ten, in elementary school. Once someone figured out I was good at it, my whole life changed.
“The only people I associated with were my coaches and sponsors. You asked if I’d been married. There wasn’t time. No time to do what most of the rest of the world was doing and enjoying. I didn’t get to read books. There was no time. Any time I had was spent running. I ate what was prescribed for me, not what I wanted. If I went to some organization for an award or to give a speech, I had a chaperone go with me to make sure they had prepared special food for me.
“I was sick of it. I couldn’t handle it. You not only have a few friends rooting for you, you’ve got an entire nation. And many other nations rooting against you. I convinced Steinbeck to let me stay with him until I could at least walk again. I didn’t want to go to a hospital or doctor and be recognized. It took sixteen weeks. Sixteen glorious weeks. I found another whole side of life, one I really enjoyed. I read like a mad person, everything I could get my hands on. I watched some television shows I didn’t even know existed. Steinbeck brought me fantastic greasy cheeseburgers loaded down with cooked onions. And pizza. My God how I found out I loved pizza. I think I could live on it for a long time.
“All that time I was looking for someplace I could live and be out of the spotlight. I know I deceived a lot of people, but my parents were both dead, and I had no brothers or sisters, so it was mainly my coaching friends involved.
“Steinbeck knew about this place. We contacted the owner and bought it from him. My father left me very well off. Money wasn’t a problem then and hasn’t been since. Steinbeck then agreed to be my supply line.”
“Wow. Do you know what would happen if this story got out?”
“David, I’ve got to ask you to swear you will tell no one.”
“And if I don’t?”
“We’ll cross that log bridge when we come to it. I don’t think you’re the kind of person who would spread the story about me. You appreciate nature and solitude.
“Don’t you worry. I wouldn’t tell a soul.”
She patted his hand. “Thanks. I didn’t think you would. Steinbeck will take you out of here tomorrow. He rides Charlie and brings a pack mule for my supplies. You can ride the pack mule out. I doubt you’d ever be able to find this place again.”
“You’re right about that. So does he come right to your door?”
“Nope. We’ll go meet him up on the ridge. I have a small hand-pulled cart I take to bring my stuff back. Sometimes it takes two trips, but it’s worth it. I just have to make sure not to leave any foodstuffs up there waiting for my second trip. That ole coyote would love to get into that.”
“What did he mean about the trade books?”
“That bag of paper back books by the door. He’ll bring me another bag tomorrow. I’ll give those back to him, and he sells them when he has a yard sale or sells at the local flea market. Besides supplying me, that’s how he makes most of his money. He too lives frugally.’
The next morning, a dusting of snow covered the ground.
“Got a story made up for the people who are looking for you?” Maria asked.
“Sure do. It’ll be a good one, too. You might even believe it.”
“Well, good luck, David. It has been nice knowing you.”
Steinbeck was right on time. The supplies were taken from a pack mule named Brutus and packed in Maria’s cart. They all fit for her to make one trip.
Steinbeck started back to his place where he had a phone. David turned to wave at Maria.
“By the way,” she said. “Walter was my father.”
Gary R. Hoffman was born at an early age. Five years later, when he was five, he started school, which lasted a long time. A college education supposedly taught him how to teach, but the only thing he really learned was that no one can teach a person how to teach. The teaching gig lasted twenty-five years, until he got tired of the federal government thinking they had the answer on how everyone should teach. He quit and went into business for himself. Later, like all good mid-westerners, when he retired, he moved to snowless Florida and started writing. He has had over four hundred short stories, essays, or poems published or placed in contests. So far, so good.
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