strange things can happen in the woods at night
|Steve looked around Granite Valley, South Dakota, feeling that he was in heaven. The town itself consisted of four houses and a small log building with a sign proclaiming Becker's Food, Fuel, and Bait, but the surroundings were breathtaking. Steve had nearly driven off the road a few times as he admired the jagged rock formations and pine covered mountains of the Black Hills. He avoided tourist traps like Mount Rushmore and Deadwood, but the sign announcing the Granite Valley Hiking Trail seemed to call his name.
As Steve walked to the little store, he inhaled the scent of pine needles and admired the picture postcard blue sky. Inside the store, an old man with a face like a dried up apple sat beside a cash register that belonged in a museum. A big black cat reclined on the counter, tail swishing back and forth and yellow eyes following Steve's every move.
The old man looked up from his game of Solitaire. "Afternoon. Anything I can help you find?"
Steve picked up a bag of peanuts and a bottle of water and set them on the counter. "No, this is all I need. I just wanted to pick up a snack before heading up the hiking trail."
"Probably shouldn't go too far today." As the old man spoke, the right side of his face twitched and his right eye scrunched shut. "There's a storm on the way."
"But it's sixty degrees outside, and the weather station doesn't say anything about a storm," Steve said, trying not to stare.
"Weather changes pretty fast around here sometimes," the old man said, his face twitching rapidly. "Sometimes even before those weather folks notice. Ranger from Jewel Cave was in here a little while ago. He said the cave was exhaling today. That always means bad weather."
"The cave was what?"
"Exhaling. When air blows out of the cave it means a low pressure system is coming through." The man handed Steve his change. "You got a compass?"
"No, but I don't think I'll need one. I'm not going that far and I have a good sense of direction."
"Don't go off the trail if you don't have a compass. A sense of direction don't always help. Even folks who've lived around here all their lives get lost up in the hills sometimes."
People around here must be morons, Steve thought to himself.
Ffffft! The black cat spat at Steve, and stood with its back arched, glossy fur standing on end, and mouth open in a vicious snarl.
"Shame on you, Kitty." The old man scooped up the cat in his arms. "I'm sorry Mister. Kitty's a sweet girl, but she forgets her manners sometimes." He set the cat back down on the counter. She purred and rubbed against the old man's arm, glaring at Steve hatefully all the while.
"It's okay." Steve backed away from the counter and headed for the door. "I'd better be going."
"Careful on the trail," the old man called.
Crazy old codger, Steve thought as he drove to the trailhead. He's worried about me getting lost when he probably couldn't find his way out of a wet paper bag.
On the hiking trail, Steve quickly forgot the strange old man and his psychotic cat. Surrounded by tall Ponderosa pines, graceful aspens, and toothlike granite spires, it was easy to tune out the rest of the world. The highway vanished behind him and the distant traffic noise was lost in the whisper of wind in the pines.
Steve heard the sound of water running somewhere off in the distance. He left the trail and followed the sound to the source, a little stream cascading over a rocky cliff to a clear pool below. As he sat on a large flat rock next to the waterfall, he realized he was tired and lay down on the rock. He intended to stay only a few minutes, but the sunshine and the sound of the falls lulled him to sleep.
A blast of wind blew pine needles and dirt into his face, waking him up. The sunshine had disappeared and he could barely make out the silhouettes of trees against a purple sky. Steve looked at his watch and saw that it was 6:30. He had been asleep for more than three hours. The temperature seemed to have dropped about thirty degrees, the wind bit through his jacket, and it was snowing. Which way was the trail? All the landmarks he remembered had disappeared into the growing shadows.
Steve started off in what seemed like the right direction, stumbling over a fallen log and telling himself that he couldn't be lost. This was 2007, not 1807. There was a greater chance of tripping over people when you wanted to be alone than of getting lost in the woods. He wished he would trip over some of those people right now.
Suddenly, the darkening forest echoed with a sound straight from a horror movie, a combination of a scream, a cry, and a growl. The sound came from a rock ledge on the side of a cliff about ten feet above where Steve was standing. A dark shape crouched there staring at him with glowing amber eyes. The shape screamed again, then leaped down, landing right in front of Steve. It was a mountain lion, but instead of the usual tawny color, it was black from head to tail.
Steve stood there petrified for a second, then every nerve in his body screamed RUN! He turned and ran, expecting claws to rip into his back at any second. Just when he was about to collapse from exhaustion, he saw a cabin up ahead with warm welcoming light shining in the windows.
Steve used his last ounce of energy sprinting to the cabin with the cat from hell snarling behind him. Praying that the door would be unlocked, he yanked on the knob. The door swung open and he burst inside, slamming the door behind him. As he sat on the floor trying to catch his breath, it occurred to him that he had just barged into someone's home uninvited. Fear rose in his chest again as he stood up. The thought of facing a pissed-off backwoodsman with a gun scared him more than the mountain lion.
"Hello," he called. "I'm sorry to come in without knocking but there's a--" He stopped when he realized he was alone. A fire in the stone fireplace in the corner lit up the cabin with a cheerful glow. The room was filled with the delicious smell of a pot of stew simmering over the fire. Above the fireplace was a carved wooden plaque that read:
If you are lost, just come inside.
All that you need we will provide.
The only furnishings in the cabin were a bed covered with a patchwork quilt, a small wooden table, and a chair. The table was set with a plate, knife and fork, and a cup. In the center of the table were bread, butter, and a pot of coffee.
Suddenly ravenous, Steve decided to take the plaque at its word and ate three helpings of the stew and half the loaf of bread. He intended to stay awake until the owner of the cabin returned, but he was exhausted and the bed looked so comfortable. Before lying down, he looked out the window above the bed and saw nothing but swirling snow.
A purring, chittering noise and a cool breeze awakened him. His eyes flew open and looked into a bright-eyed, masked face.
"Aaaah!" Steve yelled and jumped backward, hitting his head on the wall. The raccoon jumped off his chest and darted out the broken window above the bed. Steve sat up and looked out the broken window at a peaceful frozen lake. Sunlight danced off the lacy pattern made by the broken glass.
Wait a minute. That window wasn't broken last night. Had the raccoon broken it? Steve noticed that the bed felt lumpier than it did when he went to sleep. The patchwork quilt that covered him was nothing but a rag and the mattress had been chewed by generations of mice. The fireplace stood in the corner lonely and cold. Not a single ash or charred log remained of the fire that burned there the night before. The floor and walls were full of holes that he swore were not there before he fell asleep. The only thing that hadn't changed was the plaque above the fireplace.
As Steve looked around the room in puzzlement, he heard footsteps on the front porch. "Hello," called a voice as the door opened. It was a dark haired girl of about sixteen wearing a red snowmobile suit. "Oh, thank God I found you," she said when she saw Steve. "Are you okay?"
"Is this your place?" Steve asked, still confused.
"No, nobody has lived here in years. My name is Kathleen Becker. My grandfather owns the general store in Granite Valley. He noticed that your car was still parked by the trailhead this morning and was afraid you might have gotten lost in the storm. You're lucky you found this place. Did you manage to keep warm last night?"
Steve said, "Yes, but everything was different--uh, yes I was fine."
"Come on, my snowmobile is just down the hill. I can give you a ride back to your car."
When they arrived at his car, Steve said, "Kathleen, thank you so much for coming to look for me. I don't think I could have made it back by myself."
"You're welcome, but you should really thank my grandfather. He's the one who sent me to look for you."
Steve drove back to the general store and found the old man stuffing logs into an old woodburning stove. "I want to thank you for sending your granddaughter to look for me this morning," Steve said. "I probably would have died up there if it hadn't been for the two of you. I feel really stupid about getting lost. I should have listened to you yesterday."
"No problem, just glad you're okay."
Steve turned to go and then stopped. "Mr. Becker, have you ever heard of a black mountain lion?"
The old man stiffened and his face twitched several times before he answered. "There are stories of black cougars, but they can usually be traced to some drunk who saw an oversized black tomcat. Nobody's ever shot one or taken a picture of one. Most likely, they don't exist. Why?"
"This will sound crazy, but I saw one in the woods last night. It chased me."
"Well, I won't say you didn't see one but I wouldn't bet on it. Cougars hardly ever attack humans, but if one chased you, it would've caught you. Are you sure it wasn't a dog? Eyes can play tricks on you in the woods at night."
Steve opened his mouth to argue but stopped. After the experience at the cabin, he wasn't sure of anything. "Maybe it was a dog," he said. "Thanks again sir. I'd better be going."
After Steve left, the old man took his cane, limped to the front door, and called "Kitty! Come here, Kitty!"
His granddaughter came to the door complaining, "I wish you wouldn't call me that. My name is Kathleen."
He smiled. "I know, but you'll always be Kitty to me." His smile changed to a frown. "That guy who was lost in the woods last night told me a black cougar chased him."
Kitty giggled. "You mean like this?"
She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Her body rippled and darkened, static electricity crackling around her as she pulled energy from the air. Fingernails were replaced by claws and bright brown eyes became predatory amber ones. Her grandfather shook his head as the black mountain lion Steve described appeared before him.
"Kitty, change back right now. What if someone comes in?"
The cat cringed like a kitten who had been scolded and Kitty reappeared. Her grandfather shook his head again. "A black cougar. Have you lost your mind? All we need are scientists and hunters poking around the hills looking for black cougars."
"Grandpa, nobody will ever believe that guy anyway. He was pretty freaked out and didn't make much sense."
"That's another thing. Why did you chase him? You were just supposed to make sure he found the cabin, not scare the daylights out of him. What if he'd had a gun?"
Kitty laughed. "I could tell he didn't have a gun by looking at him. I had to chase him or he never would have made it to the cabin. The idiot was stumbling around in the dark, heading straight for the lake. He probably would have fallen in and I didn't feel like jumping in to save him. And I'm not the only one who scared him. Randy turned into a raccoon and was sitting on his chest when he woke up this morning."
The old man sighed. He would have to have a talk with Kitty's younger brother as well. He put his hands on his granddaughter's shoulders. "Kitty, I mean Kathleen," he said. "I'm very proud of you and your brother. You can do things I only dreamed of when I was a kid. Your mom and dad would skin me alive if the magic I taught you ever got you in trouble. So please be careful. No more goofing off and no more scaring people, okay?"
Kitty smiled and gave him a hug. "Okay I promise. I have to get to school. See you later."
The old man smiled sadly as he watched his granddaughter leave. He knew the promise she made wouldn't last five minutes, but she was no different than he was at sixteen. He was concerned for her safety, but was also jealous. Since his stroke, magic no longer worked for him. He could no longer roam the woods as a wolf, his favorite alter ego. However, he still had responsibilities. His family had been watching over wayward travelers since his great grandfather had enchanted the cabin in the woods. That tradition would continue after he was gone, through his grandchildren. He just hoped they didn't get themselves shot or captured by a zoo before they could pass it on to their own descendants.
Kitty waited for the school bus and smiled as she thought about the previous night. She loved being a cat, loved the incredible strength, agility, and heightened senses. One unexpected power that came with the cat transformation was the ability to sense people's thoughts. She hadn't told her grandfather all her reasons for frightening that man Steve in the woods last night. When she heard him think, People around here must be morons, in the store that afternoon, she decided to get even and have some fun at the same time. She intended to keep the promise she had just made to her grandfather, but first she would play one more teeny joke.
When the bus arrived, Kitty climbed aboard and sat next to her little brother Randy. "Did you get it?" she whispered.
"Sure. It was easy. He was sound asleep and didn't even notice when I looked inside his wallet. Here it is." He handed her a slip of paper.
"You didn't take anything else, did you?"
"Of course not." Randy scowled at her. "I'm not a thief."
Kitty looked at the slip of paper with Steve's phone number and smiled. She wished she could see his face when he heard the two messages she was planning to leave on his answering machine. One would be the most bloodcurdling scream a black cougar could manage. The other would only be one word, "Meow."
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